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Is the government finally taking housing seriously?

This government housing trial could be the start of something big, writes Paul Finch

The announcement that the government is conducting a trial of procuring housing development itself, via the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), is an encouraging sign of rationality breaking out in the analysis of why we are short of houses and flats in many parts of the country, particularly London and the South East.

The trial takes place on a site in Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, formerly identified as part of the eco-town programme, and George Osborne is funding the initiative as part of the National Infrastructure Plan.  Thinking about housing as a branch of infrastructure, rather than as an individual investment or as politicised social engineering, is equally welcome. In fact the chancellor is proving something of a friend to construction, not only in respect of sensible road improvements and tunnelling at Stonehenge, but also the new cultural quarter at Stratford, east London.

The advantage of direct government housing development is that it adds to the sources of supply. We need council housing, too. Clearly there is market failure in housing, and although the usual free-market moaners have claimed that land shortage and the planning system have brought about our present under-supply, they cannot explain why the private sector would build so many new homes that it reduced its own collective profitability.

Estate agent Savills has just produced a killer survey proving that hundreds of thousands of homes could be built on land currently held in public ownership. This has nothing to do with the planning system, but is about ownership and the way public bodies are forced to dispose of land for the maximum price, and frequently hoard it in the expectation, far from unfounded, that prices will rise.

This column has argued in the past that if we are to get back to a balance of supply and demand in the homes market, it will be important to dispose of public land at cheap prices, but only to those who are going to build the necessary homes for the affordable market as well as for normal purchase or renting.  This will require changes in fundamental attitudes to property as a cash cow, and a new focus on the quality of what is being built. Moreover, in a break with what has been a problem with organisations such as English Partnerships and the HCA, we need contracts where ownership of land will not be transferred until the agreed housing development has been completed.

In short, we need to invest in buildings and places, not waste money on land speculation, which reduces the quality of what can be built. I see a critical role for architects in all this, working for housebuilders, contractors, developers and, quite possibly, themselves in the great housing construction recovery programme we now require.

In the coming election housing will be a key issue for many parts of society, and we can only hope that ideas such as the Northstowe trial will be plentiful and will not be suppressed by any of the political parties. Initiatives such as the mansion tax are a waste of time, since they will not increase supply in any meaningful sense, while the near-obsession with garden cities ignores the length of time it takes to deliver what we need soon. Ebbsfleet is the exception that proves the rule.

A final point: last week I inadvertently omitted Philip Dowson from my list of significant architects we have lost this year. Philip was a formidable character and architect, who typified in one person that combination which made Arup and Arup Associates so powerful: he was both yogi and commissar. We need someone like him to lead the charge in sorting out the housing problem.

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