Far from directing that the South-east was to be concreted over, as the headlines screamed the next day, he provided no housing that was not already planned. The National Housing Federation has no idea where any extra money for social housing will come from, nor how much. Private housebuilders can take no comfort, either, from Prescott's statement that housing output in the South is failing to meet its inadequate annual target of 39,000 (which he set in 1999) by a whopping 10,000 a year.
So what is Prescott doing about increasing housebuilding? So far, nothing – apart from, probably, proceeding with the discredited plans dreamed up by Lord Falconer to dismantle the planning system. This will ensure that in the five years it will take to set up the new system, even fewer planning permissions for housing will be granted. Certainly there is no sign of speeding up the processing of planning applications. At the same time, the extra resources chancellor Gordon Brown allocated to planning departments will only reach them after their performance has improved. What if that is performance is poor because they are short of resources? Answers on a postcard to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
So while he is sitting in a darkened room with a wet towel around his head (he has promised to emerge with yet another statement later this year – but don't hold your breath), Prescott might also like to reflect on his own responsibility for the scale of the crisis. It was his mistakes, after all, that turned a problem into a crisis, and whether he is now capable of coming up with a solution is highly debatable. His problems started when he ran scared from John Gummer's "housing numbers" debate at the time of the Countryside march in February 1998. In 1999 he compounded his difficulties by running away again, this time from the numbers produced by Stephen Crow, who chaired the inquiry into housing needs. (Crow said that the South-east would require 1.1 million new homes by 2016, 62% more than proposed by local authorities.) Prescott abandoned "predict and provide" as a means of planning for housing and substituted "plan, monitor and manage", a process that nobody can define or understand, though it appeased the Council for the Protection of Rural England and allows local authorities to decide not to allow building to take place, if they wish.
He then published PPG3, with the widely acclaimed aims of supporting an urban renaissance and encouraging brownfield, rather than greenfield, development. Great aims, assuming the brownfield capacity exists. But foolish drafting meant that greenfield housing could be – and has been – cut dramatically, without anything being done to increase planning permissions on brownfields. The effects of this document have been directly responsible for the lowest level of housebuilding since 1924.
The foolish drafting of Prescott’s PPG3 has been directly responsible for the lowest level of housebuilding since 1924
Meanwhile, Lord Rogers' urban taskforce rightly complains that nothing has been done to accelerate an urban renaissance in the North. Prescott promises, in his next statement, to deal with the balance of development between the South and the North – but his only decision has been to support a proposal to reduce housebuilding in the North-west. This has enraged the North West Regional Development Agency, which is trying to bring about economic regeneration and inward investment, and must have baffled the South-east nimbies, who have long advocated moving all that horrid housebuilding to the North.
It is hardly surprising that housing output has collapsed in this muddle. Rectifying this requires two things: increased housing allocations in plans and a planning system capable of granting permissions on policy-compliant sites quickly. But nothing in Falconer's proposals will speed up permissions for brownfield applications, and Prescott failed to grasp that nettle in his smoke-and-mirrors show in the Commons in July.
The crisis is made worse by another of his failures. The Thames Gateway is only one of the brownfield areas that is underperforming because of the DETR and DTLR did not put a proper infrastructure in place. The undersupply in the South-east as a whole, even with Prescott's inadequate targets, could worsen because of this problem, according to Mike Gwilliam, director of planning and transport at the South East Regional Assembly.
Roger Humber is a housing and development specialist.