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WE ARE BUILDING FEWER HOMES THAN OUR ECONOMIC COMPETITORS - EVEN COUNTRIES LIKE GERMANY

OPINION - TOM BLOXHAM

Last week I was in an interesting meeting with the chairmen and CEOs of the major housebuilders, together with new ODPM ministers Yvette Cooper and David Miliband (who both seemed extremely bright, interested in housing and very much in a listening mood).

I started the meeting by saying how pissed off I was that I had been in another meeting with ministers who were both younger than me (and indeed younger than anybody else around the table). I remember when I use to be the youngest person in any meeting!

We were discussing the housing shortage and the problems surrounding it.

The population is growing;

people are marrying later and divorcing sooner (I'm not sure if it's the same people or different ones) but, most importantly, people are living much longer (the NHS must be doing something right! ).

This all means that the demand for homes is growing, particularly for one-person or two-people households. At the same time that demand is growing, supply is at its lowest level since the war.

It is estimated that we need about 300,000 new homes a year and we are building fewer than 200,000. We are building fewer homes than our economic competitors - even countries like Germany, that are supposed to be in a recession.

The housebuilders were adamant that it's in their (and their shareholders') economic interest to build more houses, but that the main barrier is the difficulty and delays in obtaining planning permissions.

On the other hand, the civil servants seem to believe that although the planning system is not perfect, the real problem is that the housebuilders are simply land banking - and a controlled supply actually works in the favour of the housebuilders by increasing prices and allowing them to make a profit from selling fewer homes.

It was a fascinating discussion but, in a way, trying to find who is at fault is not the answer. The following day, on a trip to Amsterdam, I got some ideas on how we might be able to resolve this issue.

In Amsterdam, I was struck once again by the quality of the architecture and the speed of development. The quality of virtually all the housing that I saw was absolutely superb. In particular, I was struck by how quickly the islands of Java and KNSM had been developed.

I went to Amsterdam only a few years ago and saw the masterplan and the first concrete frames going up in the docks. When I went back, the area was filled with thousands of new homes.

When I asked how they enabled such high-quality construction so quickly, I was told that the local authority controlled the land. Planning permission for the overall masterplan, densities, uses and heights of buildings was passed by the elected politicians but then implemented by officers.

So, once the plan was passed, there wasn't an issue of 'nimbys' using political pressure to stop development.

By the way we used to have nimbys (not in my back yard), now we have 'bananas', (build absolutely nothing near anybody at all). Maybe leaving the politicians to agree the masterplan and then selecting developers on the quality of their architecture would be a way to keep housebuilders and government happy?

Last month's fee was donated to The Chantelle Bleau Memorial Fund. Any suggestions for this month?

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