Housing minister Margaret Beckett answers this and eight other questions about the state of the sector

There was a time when the post of housing minister was one of the great high-profile ministries of the land. Not so any more. Margaret Beckett has inherited a host of policies, none of which were of her making, that now appear utterly undeliverable. Most obvious is Gordon Brown’s hubristic promises to build 2 million homes by 2016, and 3 million by 2020, by raising production to 240,000 homes a year. This year the industry will struggle to build 100,000, and next year will be worse still. Then there is the pledge to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016 – which, under the original plans, would have required mass energy generation by new homes in a way never before attempted.

Margaret Beckett
Margaret Beckett

Beckett also has to sort out the eco-towns programme – first there were five, then there were 10; now there are maybe just two or three. In the face of massive public opposition the chance of any of them getting off the ground before the next election look very low indeed.

So all around are challenges. We asked Beckett how she plans to tackle them …

Will the UK ever build 240,000 homes a year ? If so, when do you think it will happen?

In 2002, an additional 130,000 homes were delivered. Just six years later, that figure was 200,000, so the industry has already shown that with the right support, it has the capacity to rapidly expand. Given the legacy of undersupply in this country, it is essential that we remain ambitious about building targets. Of course, it is much too early to say when we might start building to those levels again, but we are being proactive in helping housebuilders retain capacity so they can start expanding again when the upturn comes. For example, we’ve brought forward spending on new affordable and social housing, as well as repairs for council housing and decent homes.

The Tories say they can get more homes built without central targets.

Are they right?

It simply does not make sense for all decisions about housing targets to be taken locally, because it would be difficult for local authorities to take account of the bigger picture and the needs of neighbouring communities. That is why we have the National Planning Advisory Unit, which can take an independent view about likely future demand. That said, of course it is essential that local authorities and their residents are fully involved in planning for their future.

Are housebuilders taking advantage of the downturn in order to get you to row back on environmental standards?

Actually, I think the way that housebuilders have endorsed and worked with us on this has been really encouraging. But in the current climate, it is more important than ever to make sure the industry has absolute clarity about the definition of zero-carbon housing, and how it can be achieved. We are consulting them. It is important to remain bold and ambitious on the ultimate ends, but without being dogmatic about the means.

How worried are you that a housing association will go bust in the next year?

The Tenant Services Authority is working closely with all big housing associations to make sure they are monitoring their risk and exposure and taking action where necessary. Taking into account factors like low interest rates and falling land prices, there is every reason to be confident about the long-term prospects of housing associations.

In 2002, an additional 130,000 homes were delivered. Just six years later, that figure was 200,000. So the industry has already shown the capacity to rapidly expand

Was the pledge to build 10 eco-towns a mistake in retrospect?

Absolutely not. Despite the current economic difficulties, the longer-term need to build better quality homes that mitigate and reduce the impact of climate change is critical.

Eco-towns will help pioneer these better homes for the rest of the country. They will help people live more sustainable lives while also providing much needed housing in areaswhere there are often long waiting lists for social housing and many first-time buyers struggling to get on the property ladder.

Are the anti eco-town protestors Nimbys?

It is important that everyone has the chance to have their say. But it is equally important that those speaking up against the plans do not drown out those who might really benefit – families who might otherwise have to move away from areas they grew up in and young people who struggle to get on the housing ladder. We are currently undergoing a major consultation on the programme, and then shortlisted locations will have to go through the planning system, so people will have plenty of chance to have their views heard.

Are you worried that the regeneration legacy of the Olympics is being lost in the drive to get it built on budget?

Not at all. Creating a lasting legacy for London and beyond remains a top priority for the Games. In fact, 75p in every pound spent on the Olympics is being spent on regeneration. This will have a profound impact on east London, transforming the lives of residents. For example, it will mean 9,000 new homes at the Olympic park, a new urban park, not to mention five world-class sporting venues.

Is it not time for the government to take on more of the funding burden for affordable housing from developers?

We have an £8bn programme of investment for the next three years, a 50% increase on the previous period. But we appreciate that market conditions are making it harder for some housing associations to sell homes for shared ownership, and that section 106 receipts have been declining, slowing delivery down. So we have been acting to make sure delivery stays on track – bringing forward £550m so 7,500 new social homes are built 18 months ahead of schedule, investing up to £200m in buying up unsold stock from developers for social and affordable housing and giving the Homes and Communities Agency flexibility over grants to developers.

What are you doing to improve the planning system?

The recent Planning Act is an important step in the right direction, with a fairer and faster decision-making process that also gives local communities a stronger voice. We are now working on our response to the Killian Pretty Review; looking carefully at all the recommendations. By cutting red tape and ending unnecessary delays, we can make sure that the planning system supports, rather than inhibits, future growth.

Original print headline - Will we ever build 240,000 homes a year?