Gordon Brown’s choice of housing as an issue to highlight in the earliest days of his campaign for the Labour leadership could be significant, and not only because there’s a rather nice property in Downing Street going begging.
Tony Blair, after his initial enthusiasm for neighbourhood renewal and tackling social exclusion, gave the impression he had more lofty matters of state to deal with. It was left to John Prescott to make the running on housing and sustainable communities, and he deserves credit for keeping the issue on the agenda.
Mr Brown made much on Sunday of the government’s plans to build five new ‘eco-towns’, an initiative previously announced by Yvette Cooper as part of the ‘new growth points’ scheme. It’s good to know this commitment won’t be quietly dumped as
There’s cause for both optimism and concern in this new emphasis on housing. For the optimists, there are signs that the Barker report is being taken seriously and that Mr Brown is willing to take action to tackle housing shortages. We could see a reinvigoration of the sustainable communities plan, which needs updating and adapting to changed market conditions. This will be vital if rising interest rates lead to a slowdown in the private housing market.
The stress on zero-carbon buildings and use of brownfield land is also welcome, though we haven’t yet seen anything beyond existing commitments. There’s even the faintest of suggestions that affordable homes and more provision of social housing will play an important part in the equation.
For the glass-half-empty brigade, though, so much more could have been said. There could have been a step away from the tired shibboleth of widening home ownership; instead, there was a reassertion of the pointless target of two million more homeowners under Labour. We could have heard a commitment to improving the environmental quality of all new house-building, instead of the rather gimmicky eco-towns proposal.
Perhaps most worryingly, housing was treated, as so often in the past, as an isolated policy area. The holistic approach stressed by the Academy for Sustainable Communities has not obviously influenced Mr Brown’s thinking. We need to make sure it does.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine