The Budget Report issued by the Treasury says local authorities should deliver agreed housing numbers, stop the use of arbitrary phasing policies to delay housing and ensure that plans make provision for 10 years' potential supply of housing.
That's the good news. But there are still a number of problems. First, as we know, housing shortages create house price inflation and prevent key workers from living in many areas. This process is not restricted to the designated growth areas. Indeed, the regions worst affected include Hampshire, West Sussex, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey and the South-west. But the government and its agencies seem to be turning a Nelsonian blind eye in those directions.
Second, there are all the practical delivery issues. These suggest that, for all ministers' tough talk of bigger, better and more sustainable forms of development, no extra housing is likely to emerge from the communities plan initiative until about 2010, if then. So the acknowledged housing crisis will become even harder to deal with.
The causes of delay include: political resistance to growth in general, and to Stansted as a growth area in particular; deputy prime minister John Prescott's new planning system, which risks creating of an administrative black hole; and the enormous amount of long-term infrastructure work required to enable the growth areas to work. Even if funding is provided and plans are approved by the local politicians, this last is likely to be a large obstacle.
So, although it is an admirable blueprint for sustainable development, the growth areas are a distraction from the pressing need to increase housing output in much of the South-east, NOW.
While a blueprint, growth areas are a distraction from the pressing need to increase housing in the South-east, NOW
Help may come from English Partnerships in strategic alliance with the Housing Corporation, Health Trusts and other public sector landowners. They seem intent on getting some sites up and running early, with registered social landlords in the lead or even in an exclusive development role. But that won't prevent the wider affordability crisis deepening. The latest monitoring report from the South-east planning authorities shows that output is 3000-4000 houses a year below existing targets, which are themselves too low.
So what do we do? Desperate times call for desperate measures and I have been intrigued recently by warm words from Prescott and Jeff Rooker, the housing minister, about the policy initiatives of their Tory predecessors, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer. So I wonder if they might like to make it a virtuous trinity by adding Peter Walker.
In 1970, when Walker became the first secretary of state for the environment, he inherited the same problem. The South-east counties had failed to release enough land for housing. Walker turned to the private sector and effectively said, okay, the local authorities have failed us, so you bring forward land and we'll deal with it on appeal.
Housebuilders have large holdings of land under option in the South-east. They will supply much of the infrastructure as planning gain – all that is lacking is any sense of urgency among local authorities to grant planning permission.
Prescott should give developers three years to bring sites forward in the South-east, as long as they meet his criteria for sustainable communities. He should set up a special call-in inspectorate to push through those that meet sensible standards.
Roger Humber is a housing and development specialist.