Keith Hill, housing and planning minister, exposed this as wishful thinking last month. Giving evidence to a House of Commons Committee, he made it abundantly clear that although ministers may wish to see more houses built, they have absolutely no commitment to Barker's housing numbers – not surprisingly, in my view, because they are politically undeliverable.
Hill told MPs: "Kate Barker, of course, is in favour of larger figures in order to achieve wider econometric goals ...We will have to look at how these higher targets are to be achieved at the regional level ... We are certainly not in a position to commit to any of those numbers at this stage ... without really thinking very hard about the resource implications."
Resource implications my foot! It's the political implications of Barker they fear. So ministers have done what they always do with an embarrassing report – kicked it into the long grass – saying they will consider Barker's recommendation for more housing in 15 months' time. In other words, after the general election when, who knows, other leaders may have other priorities.
But in the meantime they happily embrace her proposals for clobbering housebuilders (sorry – reforming the housebuilding industry and encouraging developers "to improve their performance across a range of issues" and to "raise their game", as Hill put it).
Of course, before Barker's appointment, deputy prime minister John Prescott announced plans for an extra 200,000 houses in four growth areas in the South-east (since this includes Corby and Kettering, one can only assume his geography is as hazy as his syntax). This amounts to only about one-tenth of Barker's proposed increase over the same timescale, but the political flak encountered in delivering even this modest uplift shows only too clearly why no ministerial commitment to Barker's numbers is, or ever will be, forthcoming.
Contrary to what some prominent broadsheet commentators seem to think, additional houses do not appear by magic, or even by ministerial fiat. They have to be included in development plans – regional guidance (RSS) and new-style local plans (LDDs). And that process is firmly in the hands of local authorities; indeed, under the new Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which has finally completed its lengthy parliamentary journey (see page 5), the powers of the counties – the principal opponents of more housing in the South-east – have just been strengthened. The same legislation has also vastly increased requirements for community consultation, which gives nimbys a stranglehold on the new system from the outset.
This lethal combination of obstructive counties and rampant nimbys is already making delivery of their share of Prescott's 200,000 an uphill task in Hertfordshire and Essex; these counties have already set themselves against just 900 more houses a year, let alone any significant share of Barker's extra 100,000.
But the battle over Barker and additional numbers starts in earnest when the counties in the South-east begin to review their regional guidance later this year. In their first statement on that review, counties from Oxford and Buckinghamshire to Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex say they expect to increase their existing housing numbers by "about 10%" – that is, about 2800 houses across the whole region each year, a long way short of Barker. Indeed, it is less than half of the increase Barker would require in Oxfordshire alone.
As for Barker, they dismiss her call for a 100% increase in housebuilding rates in the South-east as "wholly unrealistic" both economically and environmentally and say that the current shortfall in new homes is the fault of the housing industry and a lack of infrastructure.
Meanwhile the Council for the Protection of Rural England – the nimbys' general staff – greeted Barker's report by flatly denying the very existence of housing shortages and rejecting her economic modelling.
So, having just created a new planning system, it is not really surprising that ministers are deferring any battle with it to a later date, given the declared views of those who control and operate it.
Barker aside, and taking just Prescott's 200,000 extra houses over 20 years, how long will the planning process take to deliver them? Well, it will be a long haul, getting them through the new RSS procedures and then into recalcitrant local authorities' plans, while all the time facing nimby opposition and local councillors who will hide behind lack of adequate infrastructure to support growth.
So how long exactly? Imagine my surprise when, glancing through ODPM's annual report for 2004 (as one does) I found the following analysis: "Our [analysis] assumes that we will reach RPG9 delivery levels by 2006/07 and have recouped previous shortfalls by 2011/12. At this stage we will be starting to see extra growth in the Thames Gateway and the new growth areas, the bulk of which will be delivered in the following four years up to 2015/16."
Leaving aside the unfounded optimism that existing shortfalls will be made up by newly virtuous planning authorities enthusiastically granting planning permissions, the ODPM has rightly calculated that land on which to build Prescott's additional houses cannot start to get planning permission until 2011/12.
Delivering Barker's proposals for 10 times more than Prescott's increases in our lifetime, would require tearing up the new planning system in its entirety and replacing it with something that overrides both local government and the views of a nimby electorate. And that simply isn't going to happen.
So housebuilders expecting more land for housing, rather than just being clobbered with more intervention in design and density, construction methods, affordable housing and land taxation, had better think again.