A `dreadful day' for Essex

A MULTI-MILLION-POUND package aimed at speeding up plans for thousands of new low-cost homes nationwide has been unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

A MULTI-MILLION-POUND package aimed at speeding up plans for thousands of new low-cost homes nationwide has been unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Under plans aimed at creating sustainable communities, the Thames region is to get £446 million to attract new investment.

Three other housing target areas in the Cambridge-Stansted corridor, Milton Keynes and Ashford in Kent will receive £164m over the next three years to help spearhead growth.

Another £500m will be spent in property blackspots, mainly in the north of England where rows of terraced houses have been left abandoned and derelict.

The Government also plans to:

n prevent the automatic renewal of planning consents which will reduce development on greenfield sites in low demand areas

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n tackle the problem of empty homes by allowing councils to bring back empty properties into use through compulsory leasing

n allow local authorities to end council tax discounts on empty homes

n increase the number of affordable homes built in small rural communities.

Announcing the proposals yesterday, Mr Prescott said: "This is a comprehensive programme of action for sustainable communities that I hope will command support across the House of Commons.

"But it's just a start. This is an enormous challenge for all of us. It's about people and the places where they live. It's about raising the quality of life."

However, the Government's announcement that thousands of homes would be built in the Stansted area was slammed as policy which would lead to the concreting of the countryside.

Campaigners claimed the proposals were neither suitable for the needs of the countryside or people hoping to buy affordable housing.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Essex said the increase of the numnber of houses in the South-East was not solution the country needed.

Its chairman Suzanne Walker said: "It is a dreadful day for us because it shows that Mr Prescott puts no value on open spaces of land and does not understand the necessity for countryside between settlements.

"If builders had been building the right number of affordable homes in the last few years instead of large homes for people who can afford to move, we would not have had this problem.

"It is like selling off the family silver because you have been spending too much money."

She added the policy would overheat the economy of the South-East and said other places in country could have benefited more from the plans.

Liberal Democrat councillors on Uttlesford District Council claimed "concreting the countryside would not solve local housing needs".

District councillor Alan Thawley, from Felsted, said: "The Government says it wants houses built on brownfield sites, land that can be reclaimed from former development. But most brownfield land in Uttlesford has already been allocated for airport related housing.

Liberal Democrat councillor, Alan Dean, claimed Mr Prescott's proposals seemed confused and were unlikely to provide affordable housing for young people.

He added: "We do need more homes to rent or to buy under shared ownership for local people.

"But John Prescott and Alistair Darling are planning mass in-migration from other parts of the country and abroad to staff a monster Stansted Airport which will wipe out most chances of a home for local families."

A spokeswoman for Stansted Airport said it already had a suitable level of housing for workers to deal with the proposed expansion plans of up to 25 million passengers per year.

She added: "It is too early to say what the impact will be for us because we need to see specific information about where they are going to be built.

"We don't need any extra housing to take us to 25 million passengers per year, but in the longer term we will need to look at the details."

Essex County Council said the announcement on sustainable communities had not been clear.

Lord Hanningfield, leader of the council, said: "It is very frustrating that we still have little information over the proposals which could have an enormous impact on the quality of life of Essex residents in the future."

Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP, said: "Today's announcement for the East of England region includes a welcome commitment to spend £277 million of European funding on stimulating economic development.

"Whilst I recognise that overall these proposals will be controversial, the inclusion of European funds ensures that development will be carried out in accordance with strict European environmental standards."

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