The political boil of housing in the green belt was the subject of schizophrenic treatments at Westminster this week, with the government both approving more development and threatening to tax it at the same time. The much- quoted figure of 4.4 million extra homes, said to be required over the period 1991 to 2016, suddenly escalated to more than 5 million, following new research from the Joseph Rowntree Trust predicting even more divorces and single-parent families than previously forecast, plus increasing net immigration from elsewhere in Europe.
As a Commons select committee prepared to take evidence on housing need and land supply, deputy prime minister John Prescott enraged environmentalists by sanctioning a major new green-belt development in Hertfordshire for 10,000 new homes. Days later, he announced that he was considering the idea of taxing development on green belt and using the money to help subsidise inner-city development, an idea promoted by the Civic Trust.
A rash of headlines and scare stories in the national press suggests that Fleet Street has just woken up to the fact that new housing is planned in the countryside - as it has been for decades. The media has thus far found it difficult to distinguish between genuinely new proposals on land previously not earmarked for development, and proposals which relate directly to county structure plans, themselves reflecting increasing demand for housing in rural areas.
So far there has been little comment on the underlying arguments over where new housing should go: the battle fought out behind the scenes for several years between the ideologues of the Town & Country Planning Association and pro-development planners such as Peter Hall, and the conservationists/pro- city groups represented by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Civic Trust. So far the rural development lobby is in the ascendant, partly because of the strategic view taken by construction minister Nick Raynsford, and partly because of a reluctance to use the planning system to produce endless delay - on the contrary Labour wants to speed things up. There is also momentum in initiatives such as the East Thames corridor, which have been planned thoroughly over a long period, and serve as a model for future growth.
The battle is by no means over, however, because there is convincing evidence that, given political will, it is possible to build at significantly greater densities in our cities than hitherto, by exploiting 'brownfield' sites, and intensifying development on existing sites. Work by consultant Llewelyn-Davies for the London Planning Advisory Committee has shown the way, and more voices are now being heard, particularly in Parliament, demanding that more weight be given to urban regeneration.
Llewelyn-Davies has reviewed ways in which massively increased densities could be achieved in urban sites, not least by eliminating the automatic provision of parking. Another report commissioned from lpac, this time from engineer Halcrow Fox and due to be published next month, will reveal the extent to which redundant industrial land has been ignored as potential sites for housing development. The argument about urban density is influenced by the fact that some of London's richest areas have the highest number of bed spaces per hectare.