It's easy to say now that Prescott ought to have taken Professor Stephen Crow's advice three years ago and acknowledged that 200,000 extra homes would be needed by 2016. He didn't then, but at least he has now – albeit nudged by Treasury warnings that the housing crisis is cramping growth. For their part, housebuilders have accepted defeat in their war of attrition with nimby councils and thrown in their lot with 1950s-style dirigisme. It's better to have some sites than none, even if it means letting Two Jags dictate what they build, where, and how much they make. Beware, though: the mention of open-book accounting and profit sharing in the report may not be a throwaway line. It's not exactly Stalinism, but nor it is it free enterprise.
At the heart of the communities plan is old-fashioned social engineering. Prescott is asking northerners to accept that investment needs to focus on the South-east, and the burghers of Cambridge to embrace thousands of unwelcome neighbours. At the same time, he wants homebuyers in the South-east to abandon their dreams of four spreading acres, a picket fence and views like a Constable painting in favour of a high-rise condo overlooking the gasworks.
It's true that if more people want to live on their own, they'll have to accept smaller accommodation – perhaps something like Marks Barfield's Skyhouses (pages 18-19). The only trouble is that nobody's bothered to ask the public what it thinks.
The one area where homebuyers don't need to be consulted is infrastructure. Anyone familiar with the history of Docklands knows that without transport and schools, you might as well not bother marketing housing sites. Ergo, Thames Gateway needs CrossRail. But Prescott's plan doesn't mention who'll foot the £10bn bill for it. Housebuilders must contribute, but the most equitable solution is for them to do so as part of a windfall tax on all development sites along the route. As the Jubilee Line increased land values by 400%, owners ought not to mind – but they probably will.
The success of the communities plan, then, will depend on money. But it will depend more on politics. Can Prescott persuade councils to release sufficient land for 200,000 extra homes?
Many question whether there's sufficient brownfield land available. But even where sites exist, nimby panjandrums in local councils often flagrantly exploit confusion about PPG3 and the new planning bill to thwart development, egged on by campaigners such as Jamie Oliver. It will take Prescott years to defeat this lot, by which time there'll be fighting in the streets. To prevent the communities plan going the same way as his forgotten masterpieces on integrated transport and cities – and to keep his side of the bargain with housebuilders – he needs interim measures. One option is to cajole councils into releasing all those greenfield sites earmarked for development before brownfield came into style, if only for a limited period. If councils refuse, he should let housebuilders win on appeal. After all, a deal's a deal.
Adrian Barrick, editor