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Crow's call ends all reasonable debate on future housing needs

Well, well, now it turns out that Professor Peter Crow was right in 1999 when he predicted that 1.1 million new dwellings would be needed in the South East by 2016.

For a time things had looked bad for the former chief planning inspector.Not in the legal sense, perhaps, but in the sense of having recklessly hurled himself into the battle over development in the South East, an area where it is crucial to know the passwords.On the metropolitan side you have to be able to say 'vibrant multicultural city' with a straight face. Outside London, 'destroying our environment' goes down better - unless you happen to find yourself in Milton Keynes, where the best thing to say is: '850,000 new homes plus another 200,000? No problem! Come on down.'

Crow's famous report ignored all this. He thought planning was a matter of maps and charts, statistics and mathematics. If his committee added up all the new households that on current trends would be formed in the next 15 years, and then added the current rate of migration into the South East from other parts of the country, he would know precisely how many new houses would be needed.

He put the finishing touches to his sum by saying that 'only' 550,000 out of his predicted 1.1 million new dwellings would need to be built on greenfield sites - which was a more palatable way of saying that only the other 550,000 would have to be crammed onto dark satanic brownfield sites in London, where a surprisingly large number of self-appointed experts on rural development seemed to live.

Anyway, good at maths as he was, Crow didn't say anything about vibrant pavement cafes and bus lanes kept clear of traffic by vibrant policemen.

Nor, at that time, did he know about congestion charges.

Instead, he stuck to the politically incorrect term 'housebuilding'. Trusting member of the establishment that he was, he gave the government all the arguments it needed to justify the building of 20,000 more houses a year than the local authorities in the South East had said they wanted.

Now the local authorities are not daft.They have not the faintest idea how many houses will be built by 2016 - nor has anyone who is up in arms about development: not the CPRE, Friends of the Earth or the government. However, councils have to put numbers in boxes, so they had put in numbers that they thought the traffic would bear. As time passed, local authorities might have increased these figures a bit or damped them down to get back to their preferred diet of speed bumps and bollards.

But now they won't get the chance. Crow being proved right has exploded all reasonableness.

By appearing to give his blessing to the 'we need five new cities the size of Southampton' school of planning, John Prescott has created a situation where the government must either come down hard on the planners to deliver on a huge number of permissions, or try to drop the whole subject by finding a very big distraction - such as declaring war on Iraq.

Which would be a pity, because it is time to end this posturing nonsense about saving the rural environment. The countryside is the new Docklands. Farming is ending. Rural development is no more 'the wanton destruction of our precious environment' than coal mining in the 19th century was a scheme to kill off miners.

Unlike the powder keg of London, the South East as a whole could soak up 10 million houses if necessary. It is time to accept that development is what human beings do, and stop pretending that it is the work of the devil.

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