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Howarth joins country house fight

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Labour's former architecture minister Alan Howarth has taken up the cause of the AJ's country house campaign.

Howarth is leading the fight within the House of Commons to persuade John Prescott not to abandon the exception and end the 400-year tradition.

Howarth predicted widespread support from MPs and said the AJ's campaign stood a good chance of success. 'I think we will find a lot of support across the parties, ' he said.

The next stage of the 'Save the Clause' campaign is an expanded early day motion for the new session of parliament, which begins after the Queen's Speech later this month. The clause, which allowed planners to award permission to isolated country houses of exceptional architectural quality, was excluded from the government's revised countryside planning guidance PPS 7, currently out to public consultation.

Other MPs behind the motion include the original author of the clause John Gummer, chair of the all-party planning group Christine Russell, Michael Ancram, Michael Spicer, Tom Cox, Sydney Chapman and Hugh Edwards.

As arts minister between 1998 and 2001, Howarth was instrumental in pushing the case for quality design in public sector construction. He oversaw the introduction of CABE, the prime minister's Better Public Buildings agenda and the government departmental design champions.

A New Labour convert, Howarth left the Conservatives in 1995 before returning as Labour MP for Newport East in 1997.

Howarth questioned whether the deputy prime minister had really planned to drop the clause, suggesting the move came from bureaucrats wanting to 'tidy-up' an anomaly.

'I'm not sure John Prescott really does want to drop the clause, ' he told the AJ.

'There's a question about whether this has been carefully thought about. Bureaucrats want everything to be consistent and tidy.

'It would be crazy to decide by administrative fiat that we no longer need to contemplate building fine houses in the countryside, ' he said. 'Why should we take it on ourselves in our generation to abolish one of the great British traditions?'

And he refuted suggestions of an incompatibility between the encouragement of architecturally outstanding individual houses and the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. 'Of course it's right that the main thrust [of the government's housebuilding programme] should be built on brownfield land. But we are talking of a very occasional exception.'

Howarth also pledged to lobby the government to make planning permissions for new country houses subject to approval by CABE, and said he hoped to see more strong contemporary designs. 'I don't want this to be a charter for pastiche, ' he added.

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