Minister for housing says it’s impossible to ignore the credit crunch, but housebuilders must remain innovative and ambitious if we are to meet our targets of more affordable, zero-carbon housing

It’s no exaggeration to say England is a world leader in green building. While climate change threatens countries around the world, we are the first to seize the initiative to transform the way we plan, design and build.

Caroline Flint

I recently visited the Green House – one of the first houses built to the highest possible sustainable specifications. Developed by Barratt Homes, it’s not just a response to government targets, but a recognition of the commercial opportunities on offer and family needs. Housebuilders are signing up to the distant goals for 2016, but they are also making it happen today. The question is, can we continue this drive towards greener housing in a changing market?

I firmly believe we can and must. We can’t escape the impact of the global credit crunch, and it’s true that some people are struggling to find suitable mortgages, but with high employment and low interest rates, conditions are ripe for a healthy housebuilding industry over the long term, especially as demand for housing hasn’t gone away.

At the same time, prices have risen by 45% over the past five years – far beyond the reach of many ordinary families. To curb this we are taking action in the short term to promote stability, fairness and opportunity in the housing market. I recently announced measures to help more people get onto the property ladder for the first time. Our shared equity schemes, for example, are now open to all those with a household income of less than £60,000. The Housing Corporation will now be able to spend up to £200m buying new properties for shared equity schemes or social rent. Furthermore, the Bank of England recently announced a £50bn scheme to improve liquidity in the financial markets.

So, across the government we are taking an active approach to maintaining a stable housing market, and will continue to work with builders and lenders to address their concerns.

However, I firmly believe that long-term need, not short-term market conditions, must set the direction. What has been really positive over the past year is the way that the industry has risen to the challenge of increasing housing output – accelerating housebuilding rates, making major strides towards the zero-carbon target and leading the way in eco-town proposals.

I hope this continues and that we remain ambitious as well as practical. In particular, we can’t afford to compromise our efforts to improve the quality of our housing. It’s no good solving the housing shortage today if we are simply saving up more problems for the future, with houses that quickly date and developments that are soon deserted. We have to make sure we are meeting people’s real needs, which means reducing carbon emissions and building homes resilient to the effects of climate change. It is critical that we build on the momentum created by firms like Barratt, which are pioneering new technology, and start moving from excellent individual projects to raising the standard across all developments.

The next step is to determine what zero carbon should mean in practice, so that the industry can gear up for 2016. With a taskforce led by Mark Clare of Barratt, the UK Green Building Council has just completed a useful report on this issue that we are using to inform a full public consultation, to be held in the summer.

Building better, greener homes as well as meeting our housebuilding targets is a big ask and it’s easy to focus only on current difficulties. We need an open and frank dialogue between the government and industry to get us through these tricky times.

I will continue to listen to your concerns, so that we can remain practical and realistic, but that doesn’t mean we should let our ambitions slip. Working together, we can achieve what was set out a year ago in the green paper – the major housebuilding programme delivering the quantity and quality the country needs.