Credit where it’s due. When John Prescott and his colleagues gather in Manchester next week to take the pulse of the regeneration effort, they can feel a little pleased with themselves (see pages 40-52).
Since the last urban summit in Birmingham in October 2002, there has been a great deal of progress. Institutional investors and public–private partnerships are not quite so thin on the ground. English Partnerships, under the management of Margaret Ford and David Higgins, has once more taken a driving seat. The notion of a nationwide civic renaissance, coined five years ago by Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce, has become common currency, and there is a consensus that it should take the form of mixed-use, high-density buildings. Thanks to CABE, developers are improving the quality of those buildings. And thanks to Prescott, the regeneration toolkit has been restocked and upgraded.
Another significant change – one reflected in the agenda for this summit – is the government’s attitude to housing. Prescott will be joined at the summit by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly. Bricks and mortar hardly merited a mention in the last election manifesto. If Blair does go to the country on 5 May, one of his rallying cries will be wider homeownership. And in the wake of the Barker report, the need to step up the output of new homes of all tenures is a given, thank goodness. Prescott has pledged to increase the output of social housing by 10,000 a year by 2008, to which end more cash is being given to the Housing Corporation – and in a shocking display of joined-up thinking, NHS land is being released for low-cost housebuilding.
Which brings us to the government’s most eye-catching policy initiative, the so-called £60,000 house. A good idea but the reality is likely to be a little less exuberant than the headlines. An initial competition will ask firms to build 300 homes within this budget as part of a 1000-unit site. Note that the £60k figure refers to the build cost rather than the selling price. The idea is that the starter homes will be subsidised by the profit the housebuilders make from the other 700 units. How many of those homes will eventually be built is still a bit of a mystery.
Two considerations should temper Mr Prescott’s self-satisfaction. The first is lack of funding for transport and other infrastructure. As the report from our think tank makes clear, this is the biggest barrier to progress (pages 42-45). Then there is the question of whether housing output can be increased. The decision of the ODPM to drop changes to PPG3 that would have allowed councils to specify the size of property is sensible (see pages 14-15), but output is at its lowest since the war and, according to the CPA, is likely to fall from 158,000 in 2004 to 150,000 in 2006. It’s a far cry from the 70,000 extra homes for sale that Kate Barker said were required to bring down housing inflation. Prescott’s constant tonguelashing of housebuilders’ high profit and low output has not been helpful, so Tony Blair’s offer to meet them to talk about the real course of the torpor – planning – is welcome.
Anyone who doubts that planning is a serious obstacle should think again. The reaction of nimby regional assemblies in the East and South-east to Prescott’s pledge to build 1.1 million homes in the region’s four growth areas by 2016, is one example. The fall in number of major planning applications to be decided within the 13-week process deadline, as we reported in December, is sadly another.
Denise Chevin, editor