Government economists try to work out the basic pressure on house prices, ignoring the absolute increases thrown up by the notoriously volatile house price cycle. On this basis – which is what Barker uses herself – the "trend rate" of price increase over the past 20 years has been 2.7%, according to Yvette Cooper, parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (and wife of the chancellor's guru Ed Balls). Contrast this with the pre-enlargement European Union's level of increase of 1.1%, France's level of 0.8% and no real increase at all in Germany over 30 years.
Although the Barker report was welcomed by Gordon Brown and John Prescott – after all, it buys pretty comprehensively into the Prescott plan for centrally driven housebuilding targets delivered by increasingly regionalised agencies – I have still not detected anything resembling a ringing endorsement. To date there has only been one parliamentary mini-debate specifically on the report, initiated by former Asda boss Archie Norman. The government's response has been to emphasise all the further work to which the Barker report gives rise without ever managing to sound enthusiastic about the report itself.
All this makes me wonder just how well Barker's findings will stand up to analysis and how seminal the report will prove to be. Its main problem – highlighted by those resolutely opposed to what they see as a massive assault on the greenfields of rural Britain – is its reliance on projections for household formation that depend on outdated statistics. The 2001 census identified some 900,000 more people in the UK than did the 1996 census projections upon which Barker mainly relies. In any case, she seems to be taking us back to the simplistic "predict and provide" approach that was so derided by the incoming Labour government in 1997.
The charge against the Barker report is that it will inevitably result in the wrong houses being built in the wrong places
The report also fails to make a convincing case that house prices are sensitive to the numbers of houses being built (about 1% of the housing stock per year) – at least, not convincing enough to support Barker's thesis that we can reduce the average rate of inflation to the European average by nearly doubling the rate at which we build houses. After all, house prices may be rocketing in areas of supply shortage but they are also motoring in areas of surplus.
The third charge against Barker is that she fails to analyse the demographic data to give clues as to what sort of housing will be needed over the next generation. In fact the most striking shift in demand is towards single-person households, reflecting the increased numbers of elderly people living alone. Two-thirds of the demand for the decade to 2011 and more than three-quarters for the following decade fall into the single-person category. Yet last year about 63% of the new homes built were three or four-bedroom houses, fuelling the depopulation of the cities. The market is driven by housing as an investment and aspirational good.
In short, the charge against the Barker report is that advocating a huge increase in aggregate housebuilding across the country as a whole, undifferentiated according to region or category of housing need and relying on state planning and tax manipulation, will inevitably result in the wrong houses being built in the wrong places.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and Ripon