Prescott scheme is short on detail and long on promises

A A A

John Prescott has blamed decades of inaction for a crisis in housing as he outlined sweeping measures yesterday that he claimed would allow thousands of families to gain a foot on the property ladder.

He promised action to tackle the rocketing cost of homes in London and the South-east, while announcing a new scheme to support house building in the Midlands and the North, where the value of houses is often less than the cost of building them.

He estimated at least 200,000 new homes could be built in four areas around London: the Thames gateway in east London, Ashford in Kent, Milton Keynes, and an area between Stansted and Cambridge.

But new planning rules will insist on at least 30 new homes per hectare (two-and-a-half acres). Ministers want architects to respond with dynamic new designs to make better use of land without recreating tower blocks or back-to-back Victorian housing.

Mr Prescott's package of reform includes some radical changes to the planning system, including intervening to send "hit squads" of officials into local authorities that fail to meet targets for house building. County councils will lose the right to determine local development through county structure plans. Planning will be transferred to regional bodies.

Proposals to also hand over planning controls for major infrastructure projects such as airports have been abandoned, however, although ministers will try to streamline the cumbersome system of planning appeals, which can take years and cost millions of pounds.

Mr Prescott insisted at least 60 per cent of new development would have to be built on "brownfield" sites. But officials admitted the existing green belt may have to be redrawn to cope with new development.

In a separate set of measures, Mr Prescott also announced action to help local authorities improve the quality of their social housing stock, and promised legislation to crack down on unscrupulous private landlords who profit from housing benefit while keeping tenants in sub- standard accommodation.

Despite the fanfare surrounding Mr Prescott's announcement, few details have been finalised. Mr Prescott promised to return to the Commons after the summer to outline detailed reforms after talks with local council leaders.

Yesterday, Mr Prescott faced criticism from the Conservatives and MPs worried about development in suburban and rural areas. Eric Pickles, the Conservative local government spokesman, warned: "The Government will feel the frustration of this half thought-through attempt to sort out the country's housing planning. Make no mistake, this is a crisis entirely of the Government's own making."

He attacked the Government's aim to abolish county structure plans as a "grave mistake" that would "ride roughshod over communities and roughshod over local democracy". The Tory front-bencher Damian Green said his Ashford constituency had been highlighted as a potential high-growth area. He warned: "If you choose to go for a high-growth option in and around Ashford you will not only be convicted of environmental vandalism towards this part of Kent but also showing the consultation exercise you have been indulging in for the past year would look like a complete sham."

Mark Francois, Conservative MP for Rayleigh, said: "As planning powers come – quite rightly – with locally elected councils, what is the point of people continuing to vote in local elections if the councils they subsequently elect can then have thousands of houses rammed down their throats by regional quangos?"

But the reforms were welcomed by business leaders. John Cridland, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: "The Government deserves praise for pushing these proposals through while addressing business concerns. It would have been disastrous if we had blown this huge opportunity to reform our absurdly slow planning system."

The House Builders Federation said the booming housing market was being caused by a shortage of properties, and called for the planning system to be speeded up.

Robert Ashmead, the federation's chief executive, said: "The country needs to be able to provide a home to all those who want one. At present, we are falling short by more than 50,000 every year.

"Apart from ensuring house prices increase as more and more people compete for homes, we are looking at what could turn into a social crisis unless something is done."

The main points

*At least 200,000 homes could be built in and around London. Ministers are considering huge new developments in the Thames gateway in east London, Ashford in Kent, Milton Keynes, and the area between London, Stansted and Cambridge.

*John Prescott said he would use powers to intervene where authorities failed to meet targets for development.

*Plans to give MPs the power to decide on major projects such as airports have been dropped but proposals to speed up cumbersome public planning inquiries will go ahead.

*Three new "millennium communities" will be created, in East Ketley, near Telford; Milton Keynes, and Hastings.

*A Housing Inspectorate will be created with powers to crack down on unscrupulous private landlords.

*New developments must include at least 30 homes per hectare (two and a half acres), to discourage large executive estates in favour of denser social housing.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Specialist

£21000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat