Kate Barker has so far produced only her analysis of the problems of supply – the hard bit will come in formulating the recommendations in time for the budget. If anyone in government was hoping she would point an accusing finger at developers for hoarding land, they will have joined the ranks of the disappointed – although there are plenty of shock-horror statistics about the shortfall in new build. She seems likely to focus on the planning system, pointing to the growth in refusals for housing applications, delays in the planning process, constraints on the release of land, delays caused by section 106 agreements and the lack of incentives (or sanctions) to get councils to build.
The fundamental statistic of her research is the comparison between underlying house price inflation on the Continent since 1971, which clocks in at a 1.1% annual increase, and the 2.4% comparable figure for the UK. To get UK behaviour down to the Continental trend might require, she suggests in one of the mind-boggling sums that pepper the report, the construction of an additional 145,000 homes a year. Even to accommodate population growth and changing patterns of household formation would need an additional 39,000 houses a year – a figure likely to be revised upwards.
The government has already made some moves on planning. At the very last minute it stuck clauses into the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill (which has already had a fairly fraught Commons passage) to introduce planning tariffs – a sort of price list set by councils allowing developers to pay cash rather than negotiate section 106 agreements.
Social housing providers are fearful that this will permit private sector companies to waltz away with large-scale housing projects, leaving them to struggle to build on piecemeal plots on difficult urban sites. They fear that the combination of planning tariffs and private sector access to Housing Corporation funding for social housing will damage their ability to recycle revenues into home building. There are some suggestions that 106 agreements for social housing may not be cashable – something the Housing Bill debates under way in the House of Commons may clear up (or not, given just how much of the bill takes the form of enabling legislation with the details to be filled in later).
The government will claim that the Barker figures on the housing gap demonstrate the necessity of pressing ahead with its housebuilding programmes for the Thames Gateway, Ashford, the Stansted-Cambridge corridor and Milton Keynes. But the gap between aspiration and reality in the housing world was loudly demonstrated by the howl of fury that went up when the arrangements for "consultation" with local interests and bodies about the housebuilding programme for the Milton Keynes region were published. What Whitehall sees as a novel and creative plan to build "sustainable communities" is already being denounced as the obliteration of existing communities by the diktat of planning superquangos. Opposition to the construction of, say, 40 homes on a disused site in a village might well be dismissable as nimbyism; the erection of a swath of 40,000 houses in a single district turns every candidate for election, from parish councillor to Westminster MP into a protester.
The government may be placing most hope in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's Egan inquiry into productivity in construction, due out at the end of this month. This chimes in with Brown's repeated complaints about poor British productivity – and Barker highlighted the relative labour intensity of developers in England even in comparison with Scotland. Brown may not be disappointed by what Egan has to say, although I suspect he has exaggerated hopes about how quickly enhanced skills, industrial-style construction and higher productivity will make an impact.
Meanwhile in the House of Commons we are getting to grips with the really big issue of our age – Home Information Packs. Yes, Sellers' Packs are back for another outing. Somebody, somewhere, just doesn't give up.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and shadow secretary of state for local and devolved government affairs.