Heart transplants are routine, information can cross the world in milliseconds and modern aviation lets us fly anywhere for a pittance. So why can’t we build half as many houses as we did in the sixties?

Despite being near the top of the government’s domestic agenda for many years, this seemingly straightforward task appears beyond our grasp. Little wonder that we now face the prospect of the state’s top competition watchdog, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), preparing to take a long, close look at the housebuilding sector (see news).

It can’t be too much of a coincidence that the OFT investigation has been announced in the week that Gordon Brown takes over, given his recent declaration that the housing crisis is one of his main priorities. One might wonder what the OFT will discover that Kate Barker didn’t, or indeed what its relationship is with the continuing Callcutt review? But look at it from a political perspective: housebuilders are making record profits, every takeover dimished output and MPs and planning agencies harbour deep suspicions that they’re holding back land to manipulate the market.

So it’s in everyone’s interests that the OFT sets out to examine the problem. But, as it will undoubtedly find, housebuilding is a complicated business, and one that dances to the tune of the City. It may also discover that there’s no alternative to the present business model. If there were, why hasn’t Tesco or Richard Branson entered the market?

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved, though, and here are a few suggestions the new housing minister might reflect on:

  • Encourage councils to fast-track brownfield applications, particularly those that are for first-time buyers and social housing. A committee decision should be granted within eight weeks of submission. Currently, they can take more than 12 months and there is no priority for brownfield
  • Introduce an immediate amnesty for minor domestic planning applications. These account for more than half of all applications and appeals. A similar proposal outlined in the planning white paper will not be introduced until 2009
  • Forget about the planning gain supplement: it will almost certainly reduce supply. Instead, we should find a way to provide more social and transport infrastructure based on a “super section 106” agreement or a local roof tax
  • Undertake a national hearts and minds campaign to explain the need for extra housing and dispel the myths about concreting over the Countryside. Without the co-operation of communities, housing supply will not increase. If local communities fully understand the facts and real need for more housing, their attitude to more on their doorstep is likely to be much more welcoming.

The reality is that we all have a collective responsibility to end the housing crisis before it gets even worse. So please get on with it.