John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, wants to use the pounds 900m Budget bonus for local housing projects that will provide a focus for policy on employment, law and order, transport, and energy efficiency. But it appears solar heating has already been ruled out as too costly.
John Battle, the energy minister, told Greenpeace last week that cladding the roof of a house with solar panels could cost more than pounds 10,000, with the electricity costing up to six times more than conventional power.
"My personal view," he said, "is that it would probably be more cost- effective in a large housing programme to ensure that it includes the maximum possible level of passive solar features [eg houses facing south, with big windows on that side, guided natural ventilation, high levels of insulation], since these would not add a great deal to the built cost and could bring significant benefits both to the inhabitants and ultimately to the environment at large."
An example of the type of housing ministers seem to have in mind is the award-winning redevelopment of council blocks in Hulme, Manchester.
Mr Battle says Mr Prescott's Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions will be offering guidance to councils on energy use in the new housing schemes. But it would appear Mr Prescott plans to use the new housing to produce a living example of New Labour at work. In his Budget, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, released pounds 200m of councils' pounds 5bn capital receipts for housing projects this year, with another pounds 700m instalment next year.
The carve-up of that cash could mean an extra pounds 6m for Birmingham, with pounds 3m for Manchester, Leeds, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, and Southwark, with even southern towns like Welwyn Hatfield and High Wycombe getting more than pounds 500,000 this year.
What has not been formally announced is that Mr Prescott wants to exploit the new housing budget to encourage councils to design and build new-style estates that help to stimulate private investment and employment, to curb crime and vandalism, and encourage the use of public transport, as well as generating energy efficiency.
A consultation paper says: "The Government accepts that in many cases a programme restricted solely to physical improvements and development will not result in long-term and sustainable change and that associated projects will also be necessary, for example, to reduce crime and vandalism on estates or improve the ability of residents to get jobs."
But ministers are willing to dedicate 15 per cent of the extra money to such regeneration work, provided that it directly benefits the people living on the new estates.