The government must help housebuilding now by buying up development land, says Robert Napier

The chair of the government’s new housing super-quango has criticised Labour’s efforts to tackle the credit crunch, saying money to buy up development land is urgently needed.

Robert Napier, chair designate of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), said at a conference in London last week that the government needed to increase investment in development land to take advantage of the fall in prices, if the embattled housebuilding industry was to recover.

According to research by estate agent Knight Frank published this week, the value of development land has fallen by more than 50% in parts of the UK.

When asked why the government was not already capitalising on this opportunity, Napier said: “Money.”

He said: “It’s crazy that we’re selling land at the moment. We should be buying it, but we don’t have the money to do so.”

Napier, current chair of English Partnerships, added: “The ideal time to fund land assembly is now. The problem is that a significant part of the HCA’s

£5bn budget is already allocated.”

In addition, English Partnerships, one of the bodies that will be part of the HCA, will suffer because receipts from land sales will be much lower than originally predicted.

Napier’s call was backed by Tony Reeves, chief executive of Bradford council, who said there had “never been a better time than now” to buy land, so development could start quickly when the credit crunch eased. “The government must increase investment and subsidy,” he said.

Jon Neale, head of development research for Knight Frank, said large falls in the value of development land had left it ripe for purchase. “It’s undervalued, and we’re going to need housing in the future.” Neale added that housing starts could fall as low as 50,000 in 2009.