WEST Sussex County Council has fought a long and bitter legal battle against the Government. It has been ordered to find sites for nearly 13,000 new homes over the next 12 years, in addition to those it had already planned for. Reporter NIGEL GALLOWAY gauges reaction to the decision and examines the issues and what happens next.

PLANNERS were going back to the drawing board today in the wake of losing a courtroom battle over housing figures with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

And it has been made clear that every district in West Sussex will have to take a share of the 12,800 extra homes that must be built by 2011.

The first indications of where those homes may go is expected in June when the county council says it will issue a new consultation paper.

But planning committee chairman Harold Hall stressed: "The long-term future of the county must not be undermined by making hasty decisions on where the new housing should be built.

"We will need to consult widely and work with the districts."

Coun Hall said he was bitterly disappointed after two High Court judges on Friday rejected the county's application for an Appeal Court hearing to challenge a ruling by Mr Prescott.

The Environment Secretary caused an outcry when he overturned the county's structure plans for 39,000 new homes and increased the figure to almost 60,000.

The council has now used up all its legal challenges and fears that Friday's decision will harm many greenfield sites and increase traffic pollution.

Tory leader Graham Forshaw defended the as yet undisclosed cost of a series of protracted legal actions.

He said: "It was worth every penny to try to save the green fields of West Sussex."

Coun Hall says it is too early to speculate on how the new housing allocation will be shared out between the districts of Worthing, Horsham, Mid Sussex, Crawley, Adur, Arun and Chichester.

But Mid Sussex and Horsham with booming economies in prime commuter country are likely to bear the brunt.

Coun Hall said: "We have no set formula for the distribution of the houses across our districts.

"We will be looking at a range of issues including economic pressures in the north-east of the county compared to the coastal towns."

Many districts fear that greenfield sites will be lost to bricks and mortar as a result of the Prescott ruling.

In Mid Sussex there is concern that 2,500 extra homes could be built between Hickstead and Burgess Hill.

Threatened sites at Horsham include greenfield land at Billingshurst and Christ's Hospital.

Worthing will also face a dilemma with few greenfield sites remaining.

The borough's new housing figure had been 3,800 and policy chairman Bob Clare believes it may now be increased by between 1,200 and 1,500.

He said: "It will be an urban cramming disaster for Worthing."

At Chichester there are already plans for 5,700 new homes north of the city. Any more could threaten villages in the Manhood Peninsula and north of the Downs.

Coun Derek Whittaker, leader of Arun Council, said: "This is very disappointing news.

"I have every sympathy with the county council's fight to reduce its housing numbers.

"We need to preserve our country life and make sure our countryside is not ravaged by over-development."

Coun Brian McLuskie, leader of Worthing Council, said: "This will have some considerable impact on Worthing.

"We are a town by the sea and do not have 360 degrees to play with. If we have to build any more homes they will have to be on stilts or in the Channel.

"I'm deeply disappointed and frustrated because I would have thought that the Government would have accepted the logical arguments that had been put forward by West Sussex."

Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, said: "I think it's terribly sad that the Secretary of State has been allowed to overrule local decision-making and the wishes of the vast majority of local people."

Coun Pat Beresford, Adur Council's planning chairman, said: "I was hoping that at the 11th hour someone might see sense but I can't say I'm totally surprised by this.

"This threatens Adur - that's the truth of it. We are a small authority on the coast and this is very, very serious for us."

Peter Bottomley, MP for West Worthing, said: "This is sad news. No corner of West Sussex will be unaffected by this."

Crawley Council leader Tony Edwards said: "We now need to work closely with our partners at county and district level to overcome the huge environmental problems."

The timetable for drawing up a new housing policy for the county will start with a consultation paper in June.

Proposals to meet Mr Prescott's demands will be published in January 2000 but will then face a public inquiry-style hearing before a new structure plan is approved.

But one organisation was happy with the court ruling.

A spokesman for the National Federation of Housebuilders said: "It is splendid news and an awful lot of taxpayers' money has been wasted.

"The county council is being slightly alarmist when it talks about greenfield sites."

He added: "West Sussex is a popular place to live and with careful planning and consideration, these houses can be accommodated in a sustainable way."

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.