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Unversed in hysterical politics, Crow flies straight into trouble

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Things look bad for former chief planning inspector Professor Stephen Crow at the time of writing. Not in the legal sense perhaps, but in the sense of having recklessly hurled himself into the 'squeamish metropolis' versus 'hunting-with-dogs' battle over housebuilding in the South East.

In this contentious area 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 enthusiastically is: '1.1 million of you? No problem! Come on down.'

Crow's famous report appears to have ignored all this hyperbole. He thought planning development was a simple matter of statistics and mathematics like everything else. If his committee added up all the new households that on current trends would be formed in the next fifteen 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. Then he put the finishing touches to his sum by saying that 'only' 550,000 out of his predicted 1.1 million 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 seemto live.

Anyway, good at maths as he was, Crow was a dunce at hysterical politics. He didn't say anything about vibrant cities with vibrant pavement cafes and bus lanes kept clear of traffic by vibrant policemen. Nor did he denounce 'the destruction of our precious rural environment'. Instead he used the politically incorrect term 'housebuilding'. Trusting member of the establishment that he is, he then found himself giving the government all the logical infrastructure 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 haven't the faintest idea how many houses will be built by 2016 - nor has anyone, not the cpre, or Friends of the Earth or the government - but councils have to put numbers in boxes so they had put in numbers that they thought the traffic would bear. As time passed, if Crow had not attacked, they 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 has exploded all this reasonableness. By appearing to give his blessing to the 'five cities the size of Southampton' school of planning he has created a situation where the government must either accept his figures or try to drop the whole subject. John Prescott will either have to endorse Crow, or take the whole matter of greenfield versus brownfield development off the front pages by a very big distraction - such as declaring war on France.

Which would be a pity, because it is certainly time to end this posturing nonsense about saving the rural environment by living in a loft in docklands. The countryside is the new docklands. Farming is ending. Rural development is not really 'the wanton destruction of our precious environment', it is like coal mining in the last century, an act in the unfolding drama of the economy. Unlike the powder keg of London, the South East could soak up 10 million houses if necessary. It is time to accept that land use is what human beings do, and stop pretending that it is the work of the devil.

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