It may promise affordable housing on a massive scale, but the government's communities plan could simply be a rerun of 1960s prefab failures like Thamesmead (pictured). We investigate the dangers of sacrificing quality for speed and rock-bottom prices
The Gooch family were the first people to move into a new community of modern affordable homes, built using off-site manufacturing methods on a brownfield site in the Thames Gateway. This was not one of the schemes initiated under John Prescott's sustainable communities plan; it was the 1960s development vision. And the Gooches did not quite live happily ever after: the homes let the rain in, their surroundings were blighted by graffiti and vandalism, and the architecture was used as the dystopian backdrop for the film of A Clockwork Orange. The town of Thamesmead has struggled against this tainted image ever since and property prices there still languish below the national average.

The communities plan charts a much happier ending for the Thames Gateway, and for the other three designated housing growth areas: the Milton Keynes–south Midlands area; Ashford in Kent; and the London–Stansted–Cambridge triangle, where an additional 200,000 homes will be developed over the next 13 years. But much of the action in the plan appears familiar, with its talk of large-scale development on brownfield land and building affordable homes using off-site manufacturing methods.

As in the 1960s, things need to happen fast. Housebuilding statistics for this year so far are only marginally up on last year's all-time low and undersupply is reaching crisis point, putting the government under pressure and leading to fears that the plot for this sequel to the 1960s' version could again be a dash for trash.

Two reports from separate House of Commons select committees have this year sounded warning bells: one committee on affordable housing expressing doubts about widespread adoption of off-site manufacturing build methods; and the second criticising the communities plan as ill-conceived. "It could create a characterless urban sprawl serving commuters into London," committee chairman Andrew Bennett said damningly.

CABE shares the fear about quality of design. "Our worry is that if we try to develop housing fast in areas with no infrastructure, we will only attract the cheaper ends of the market and the housing will have to be low density and allow for car parking. We could be throwing away a brilliant opportunity," says Jon Rouse, CABE's chief executive. There is little scope for intervention to ensure that design quality is maintained in an area like the Thames Gateway, Rouse points out. "The ideal solution is to make sure that areas have a clear masterplan that developers have to follow. But 80-85% of the development is going to happen on private land with private money, so planning is the only control and, as we know, that is very inconsistent."

CABE, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation are to set up a quality forum later this year to bring together housing providers, local authorities and other players in all the growth areas to exchange best and worst practice – with the objective of encouraging the best. Their initial meetings may be taken up with debate about what constitutes "the best" when it comes to quality. "CABE is doing a great job – they're the thin blue line against trash, but we must guard against an architectural elite defining quality too narrowly. The public will be perfectly happy with good-quality vernacular homes. They don't have to be steel and glass," cautions John Callcutt, chief executive of housebuilder Crest Nicholson, which is developing the Ingress Park scheme at Greenhithe in the Thames Gateway – predominantly traditional in design.

Prescott’s plan could create a characterless urban sprawl serving commuters into London

Andrew Bennett, select committee chairman

Callcutt believes that it is not housebuilders but the government that will dictate the quality of what is built in the growth areas. "The worry is that if supply does drop dramatically, the government will end up sanctioning poor-quality housing. Such is the need to get housing built that we could repeat the mistakes of the past and end up with low-grade, ill-thought-out prefabricated housing," he says. "The issue is for the planning system to work in co-operation with the private sector to ensure that standards don't drop."

Not that standards are consistent in the first place, in spite of the communities plan as a road map. "The level of interpretation of the communities plan does vary from one local authority to another – but then, the same applies to housebuilders," says Ian Cox, director responsible for major regeneration projects with Bellway Homes, which is involved in a dozen projects to build 3000 homes in the Thames Gateway.

Bellway, having already been involved in Barking Reach for more than 10 years, is in the Thames Gateway for the long haul. Ground preparation of its 300-acre brownfield site is still only a third of the way through, with 900 homes completed. As Cox says: "Getting a scheme through is a long process."

And although homes are being built, infrastructure fundamentals like schools, shops and public transport are still lacking, sparking complaints from pioneering residents. Housing association Southern Housing Group has just let its first homes in Barking Reach. "The people that we have had moved there are delighted," says Tom Dacey, chief executive of Southern Housing Group. "It is important that we keep a sense of perspective. It is that common problem – that you can't build shops unless there is the community to use them. The issues there are common to the whole of the Gateway and they need to be given some further thought. To some people, it can be unattractive to go to areas that are relatively desolate."

Both Bellway and Southern Housing Group are trialling the off-site manufacturing methods that the government is advocating as a means of improving speed and efficiency of housing supply in the growth areas. John Prescott recently exhorted housing associations to be more active in bidding for Challenge Fund grant aid, which is focused at off-site manufactured housing schemes for the South-east.

But Dacey says implementing Prescott's wishes is not easy. He tells of the housing association's ongoing struggle to use off-site manufacture on one scheme, in the face of rejection by three potential manufacturers. "We are finding that there is a shortage of suppliers in the marketplace," he says. "They are leaving the market because they are not getting the certainty of supply. There's a lot of government hype about off-site manufacture, but a lot of manufacturers are not ready and prepared yet."

Darren Richards – operations director with building technology consultant MTech, which advises housing providers on the use of off-site manufacturing – says there are supply constraints: "The health, education and housing sectors all have the same mantra: that the only way to deliver is through off-site manufacturing solutions. So physical manufacturing capacity could be a problem, but I don't think we're anywhere near desperation."

So how can the government ensure that the communities plan gets off to a good start, if not a fairytale ending? "We should be starting with the winners, where there is infrastructure already in place," says CABE's Rouse. That leads, surely, to just one destination? Dacey nods.