Here comes the first building boom for a generation. Not before time, many would say, as John Prescott announced yesterday that land will be released for the building of hundreds of thousands of homes in the South-east over the next 30 years. But while the homes are needed, the struggle to build them will run into emotive protests. Because, although many of these homes will be built on land that has been previously developed, many thousands will be built in some of the last green places of southern England.
At first sight, there is a tragic inevitability about this. Despite greenbelt regulations, houses are creeping all over wooded hills and grassy fields in the South-east. I remember visiting one such proposed development in Hockley Wood, in Essex, a few years ago, which was being opposed by a well-organised and well- publicised protest. This part of Hockley was, in the developers' eyes, just empty, muddy space, ripe for development. For the protesters, it was a precious place full of well-known trees and ponds and badger setts and brambles they wanted to save for themselves and their children.
I remember visiting the protesters' benders, and being shown around their proudest achievement - a tunnel complete with a door that locked on with steel cables, built by the self-styled "best tunnel builder in Britain", a young man called Ed. The protesters were full of optimism, believing that their emotion and their solidarity would win out over the hard-headed views of the developers.
Now, three years later, the protesters have gone, the tunnel has gone, the badgers have gone, and new residents have moved into their new homes: three-, four- and-five bedroom houses with large gardens and space to park a couple of cars. The houses go for up to half a million pounds. They are just what people in the South-east aspire to, a spacious home in a quiet location within driving distance of London, with a few birds still singing in a few remaining trees.
Although this march of concrete over these few remaining green places seems inexorable, there is a vision that promises to get us out of this need to pour concrete over all our woods and wild places. The buzzwords of this vision are "brownfield" and "density" - the plan is to build closely packed houses on land that wasn't too nice to start with. Visionaries such as Richard Rogers have long been pointing to the pleasures of high- density urban living, in Bloomsbury or downtown Amsterdam, where people live cheek by jowl but see their areas as desirable and fun to live in.
John Prescott has tried to incorporate some of this vision into his new programme. But will it be enough, and will it work? Although 60 per cent of the new development is slated to be on brownfield sites, that still means 40 per cent of an awful lot of houses slicing through green places. And although he has been talking tough on density for a long time, he seems to be shying away from tough action. For instance, last year Prescott was giving interviews in which he told journalists that he was "preparing a tough new planning regime" in which "builders will be ordered to incorporate high densities into future projects in the South".
At the moment, the average density in the South-east for new building is 22 dwellings per hectare. Richard Rogers, in Towards an Urban Renaissance, argued that 35-45 dwellings per hectare would work very well as a baseline. Other architects and planners have been suggesting that much, much higher densities can be desirable. But Prescott's new programme only reiterates an old promise to try to hold developers above 30 dwellings per hectare. "In future, applications to develop larger sites for new housing at below 30 dwellings per hectare will be liable to be called in and will have to be justified following public enquiry". …