Can Prescott's plan create more than just acres of bland boxes?
John Prescott claims he is finally fleshing out his ambitions for the Communities Plan. But what will it mean? Will the architectural community be involved? And will it deliver any real results?
Delivering Sustainable Communities, as the plan is officially named, was unveiled at the beginning of the year as the government's answer to the chronic shortage of housing in the South East and the urban disintegration of many of England's post-industrial northern towns.
It outlined a mammoth housebuilding programme in the south and a commitment to widespread regeneration in the north.
The first big surprise in the latest series of announcements - 'Making it Happen in the South East and the Thames Gateway' - is the rebirth of the Urban Development Corporations, beloved of developers in the 1980s. This is a sure sign that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister believes it cannot trust local authorities to deliver its massive programme. There will be two; one in the vast Thames Gateway area east of London and another smaller one to the south of Thurrock in Essex.
This time, the government says, they will be different. Gone, Prescott insists, will be the 'quicker by quango' mentality of the London Docklands Development Corporation, and in its place will be a softly softly collaborative approach with local councils. Both will have council representatives on their boards and will, the deputy prime minister insists, have an absolute commitment to architectural quality.
But, how this commitment to good design will manifest itself is still unclear. At a press conference last week, unveiling the latest plans, Keith Hill, the new planning minister, talked about the importance of the 'Centre for Architecture and the Built Environment', before one of his civil servants whispered in his ear: 'it's the commission'. Furthermore, he refused to commit to any central government guidance, ignoring calls for the ODPM to insist that architects are involved with all new housing developments.
Concern that this sense of apathy will lead to a homogeneous mass of box-houses is widespread. 'This must not just be another opportunity for the volume housebuilders to let rip with their standard house-types and standard layouts, ' Urban Design Group chair Alan Stone said. 'The government is using all the latest buzzwords like 'sustainable community', 'urban village', 'urban renaissance' and 'community enterprise hub', but the suspicion is that what we will get is wide swathes of suburban housing with a few other uses tacked on.'
And the Urban Design Alliance's Martin Bacon is also worried about the government's promises. 'The government's commitment to good design is clear. What is not clear is how such ambitious plans for house building can be reconciled with the government's urgency to get this programme under way, ' he said.
What is certain is that a vast number of houses are going to be built. The government has earmarked the Thames Gateway development for at least 200,000 new homes by 2021, together with the creation of 300,000 jobs. It has also set aside a surprisingly large £330 million for the project, a sign of its commitment, as a way of drawing in £2 billion from the private sector.
However, there is no guarantee that this cash will materialise and that developers will be persuaded to throw in their money.
One sure sign that the government shares these concerns is that it has set a target of only 25 per cent for affordable housing. This compares very poorly with London mayor Ken Livingstone's official policy of 50 per cent on all new-build he approves.
Hill admitted that this was at least in part done to please developers. 'As it is, a lot of the building will be on brownfield land and there will be serious remediation costs, ' he said. 'We have to be reasonable and understand that developers will have a lot of costs to cover.'
This seems to be where the Urban Development Corporations come in. Developers are constantly complaining to the government, and Gordon Brown in particular, about the cost of the planning system, and Prescott is determined that the massive building programme should begin as soon as possible as a way of bringing down the South East's escalating house prices. As a result, an unholy alliance has been formed to bypass the planning system.
One area that the government is trumpeting, with real confidence, is the transport improvement considered essential for the development.
However, this area is not clear from criticism either. As one observer pointed out at the latest press conference, few of these massive infrastructure projects - Crossrail, the Docklands Light Railway extension and the East London Line - will be complete by the time they are required to service the new settlements.
Only the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be finished in time and it is not actually designed as a commuter line.
These problems underline a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Communities Plan. What does John Prescott want from the new developments? With one breath the government talks of self-contained communities creating as many jobs as homes, while in another it talks of widespread commuting from the settlements to London's existing employment areas: the City and the West End.
It is this conundrum, along with many others, that needs to be solved before any architect - or, God forbid, housebuilder - can be expected to put pencil to drawing board.