The government's plan to add some 200,000 houses to the numbers planned for the region - taking the total to more than 1 million – is not only controversial but is also a high-risk strategy. Prescott is staking everything on being able to deliver concentrations of high-density housing through various accelerated planning processes (including the resurrected urban development corporation) without "concreting over the South-east". He has steered clear of the Home Counties to the west and south-west of London (where, arguably, the demand is highest) to focus on Ashford in Kent, the Thames Gateway, a large chunk of country near Milton Keynes and a wedge of territory from north-east London to Cambridge. If the government's airport development strategy (ironically based on "predict and provide") ends up putting more runways at Stansted, the Cambridge corridor is likely to become one of the hottest development spots in Europe.
There are a lot of unanswered questions.
Will the numbers actually be enough given the way that successive governments have underestimated household formation figures? Will affordable houses still be affordable by the time they are built (the Mail having also announced that average house prices in England and Wales had now broken the £150,000 barrier)? Will the infrastructure of roads, schools, hospitals, surgeries, waste-handling facilities and the like be delivered? Planning gain may take care of much of the capital cost, but the government will have to pay to maintain them. And what about the availability of skilled manpower in the construction industry?
At least the government has broken a taboo and acknowledged that the only place where demand for housing in the South-east can be met is in the South-east. The whimsical musings about solving the economic problems of the North in order to induce a mass migration of houseseekers to Liverpool have thankfully ceased. When Professor Stephen Crow, who led the Examination in Public of SERPLAN (South-east regional housing plan), predicted that 1.1 million new homes were needed in the South-east, the government blinked and trimmed the figure to 850,000. Now it has bitten the bullet.
The whimsical musings about inducing a mass migration to the North have thankfully ceased
But Prescott is clearly nervous. He promised to expand the area covered by green belts (although nobody knows where) and his speech included a poetic passage on the virtues of home ownership, intended to counteract the impression that the dilution of right-to-buy discounts represented an ideological shift. His most eye-catching proposal in the social housing arena was the plan to empower local authorities to lease homes left empty for more than six months by private landlords. I suspect local authorities will hope that the threat of takeover will push landlords into refurbishment and letting, rather than have to face the costs of renovation themselves.
Given Prescott's repeatedly stated commitment to the renovation of social housing, it is curious that his oral statement made no mention whatsoever of the main vehicle for such renovation – large-scale voluntary transfer. The glossy publication, however, puts that right. Local authorities are told that there are only three options on the menu to bring the condition of the stock up to scratch: LSVT, the PFI (which so far has delivered very little housing), and arm's length transfers for the better performing authorities. Councils that do not use these options will get nothing beyond the housing investment programme. Given the stumblings in the LSVT programme, after the Birmingham "no" vote and the withdrawal of Sheffield, this is an important reaffirmation of the central role of this strategy.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and Ripon and a former Conservative housing minister.