John Prescott's environmental legacy seems likely to be the large scale destruction of areas of the English countryside. Swathes of housing are being built on flood plains and/or without adequate infrastructure. Advice from prominent environmentalists and from the government's own Environment Agency is being widely ignored. All of this is storing up problems for the longer term.

This article, by Jim White, first appeared in the Daily Telegraph of 13 March 2006.

New suburbia is an environmental cul-de-sac

Just down the road from my house, John Prescott's vision of Britain is taking shape. Over the past five years, a strip of land stretching for more than a mile beside the railway has been modernised into concrete and asphalt. Old sidings have bloomed into cul-de-sacs and closes. Patches of scrubland have transmogrified into squares and crescents. Decommissioned factories and long-redundant warehouses have been replaced by loft developments. What was once a brooding corridor of post-industrial curiosity has been blanded out by bricks and mortar, its edges smoothed into history by 2,500 new homes.

This is urban living, according to the blurb outside the latest show home, the chance to enjoy the amenities of the city, to engage with what it describes as "the local cosmopolitan cafe' society". All this at a bargain price of 750,000 for the four bedroomed canalside townhouse.

If Mr Prescott is right and the South-East of England really does need 400,000 extra dwellings to be built over the next 20 years, it is as well that 2,500 of them are constructed in places where people already live, on brown and scraggly land rather than on green fields or open spaces or recreation grounds. It seems nobody can lose by this extended construction: the local businesses are buoyed by the arrival of several thousand new consumers in their catchment area, the incomers can walk to the shops and the station, and a few dozen cows can carry on grazing out in the countryside undisturbed by bulldozers, jack hammers and an invasion of Polish plasterers.

Except, looking around the new estates the other day, watching instant suburbia flourish where once were just oily puddles, it soon becomes clear that there is nothing here except houses and cars - lots and lots of cars. There are no schools, no shops, no doctors' surgeries, no parks, no leisure centres, no public transport connections, just streets called things like Brook Drive and Meadow Avenue.

The people who live here are expected to use the town's existing facilities. They must add their names to the school waiting lists, join the queue for the oversubscribed dentist, line up at the bulging health centre. Incredibly, developers have been allowed to build 2,500 homes and sell them at more than half a million a piece and yet add nothing a all to the city that has provided them with their bottom-line bonanza.

Building companies must provide "planning gain" only if they build more than 200 houses. So the strip has been developed piecemeal, 199 at a time.

And our local authority has sat back, supine and allowed them to do it. If my neighbour wants to paint his window frames a daring shade of tangerine, the council's planning department would land on his head from a great height, indignantly pointing out the rules for living in a conservation area. Yet the same council allows building firms to twist the rules without complaint, falls over backwards to provide them with land without for a moment thinking this could be the opportunity to extract some cash to sort out swimming pools municipal football pitches it can no longer afford to maintain.

Meanwhile, ask the smooth estate agent giving guided tours of the show home where the solar panels are, or if the house comes fitted with the latest technology for recycling water from shower to lavatory cistern, and he looks at you as if you have just landed from planet bonkers.

"No, sir," he says. "Though there is a fully integrated home entertainment system, with wireless internet." So, while the Prime Minister tells us that the option for new nuclear power stations has not been ruled out because we have to look beyond fossil fuels, his Government has allowed 2,500 new homes to be built without any use of existing renewable energy technology.

This, presumably, is happening across the South: 400,000 new homes will arrive that will make no contribution to the local environment, or help to preserve the wider one. The depressing thing is, with a bit of thought and judicious legislation they could so easily do both. What an opportunity is being missed.

That will be John Prescott's legacy.

back to section 215 main page

back to top of section

back to home page