James Heartfield detects confusing signals in the housing debate

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is regularly responsible for declaring that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new homes are to be built. Most recently, it was the South East Regional Assembly that declared 500 000 homes were needed. These declarations generally provoke outrage. Angry articles are written in the papers about "concreting over the countryside". If any area is named, in all likelihood a conservation campaign will be announced, too. Rare beetles and other wildlife will be discovered, or historic views, or literary associations. Most of these campaigns last about a month or two. That is how long it takes for the penny to drop. It is more than likely that there are no new homes being built.

The problem is an historic one. There has been a shortfall in new building for decades. Even before government stopped building council houses, housing completions always fell short of demand. In 1996, the environment minister John Gummer put a number on the new homes needed by 2016:4 million. The stored-up demand, along with rising incomes, provoked the long climb in house prices (aggravated by, as well as giving rise to, the fad for using houses as an investment).

Alongside the growing demand for homes, there is a greater availability of land, as farming becomes more intensive, and smaller farms go under. But this land has no planning permission and often it is in the Green Belt.

In its first term, Labour contracted out its housing policy to the Urban Task Force under Sir Richard Rogers. But the task force did not embrace the goal of building new homes. According to one of its number, if you build more houses, all that will happen is that "more people will live alone rather than live in couples with granny upstairs".

So the task force set about imposing constraints on new building. They persuaded the Government that 60 per cent of it should be on derelict land.

And they insisted that developers should create "sustainable communities", paying for social housing, schools and hospitals out of their profits.

Understandably, developers saw this as a disincentive. New house building fell to an all-time low. Now John Prescott has to fix the problem that Sir Richard Rogers exacerbated. He is using his office as a bully-pulpit.

But governments do not build houses anymore. Developers do. So far the new growth is painfully slow. Mr Prescott's office has accepted that it will have to pay for some of the new schools and other amenities. Whether that is enough to turn the corner is hard to tell.

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