No wonder there is so little action when it takes so long to prepare the ground

This government is often accused of being arrogantly impatient, restlessly interfering. The opposite is the case
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The unofficial campaign to win the next election is breathlessly under way. Labour warns of sweeping spending cuts under the Conservatives. The Conservatives predict soaring tax rises under Labour. There will be much more of this for the next 15 months or so. At the same time there will be much less space for the implementation of controversial policies. As far as ministers are concerned the period in their second term when they sought to address thorny issues has passed. The prospect of a general election stifles them. From now on ministers will consult furiously, but implement timidly.

The unofficial campaign to win the next election is breathlessly under way. Labour warns of sweeping spending cuts under the Conservatives. The Conservatives predict soaring tax rises under Labour. There will be much more of this for the next 15 months or so. At the same time there will be much less space for the implementation of controversial policies. As far as ministers are concerned the period in their second term when they sought to address thorny issues has passed. The prospect of a general election stifles them. From now on ministers will consult furiously, but implement timidly.

Nowhere is this more evident than in their approach to housing. Here is a policy area that impacts on us all in a range of ways. Over the past 12 months house prices have risen by an average of 17 per cent. It is always bad news if house prices start to fall, but for a lot of people it is catastrophic if they continue to rise at such a startling rate.

The state of Britain's housing can lead to a volatile economy, leave public services vulnerable to recruitment crises and cause huge social problems arising from the fact that some people cannot afford to live in their preferred area. There is also the question of Britain's membership of the euro, an issue that will resurface at some point in the next decade or two. Convergence with the lower interest rates in the eurozone would almost certainly lead to another surge in British house prices, making it harder for those on lower incomes to buy or rent.

Ministers recognise that in parts of the country - not just in London and the South-east - there is a housing crisis with all sorts of implications for other policy areas. I suspect that the Chancellor in particular identified the problem long ago and knew, in essence, what the solution had to be: build lots of new houses and as part of that expansion include a fair amount of affordable accommodation.

The context is alarming. In the 1970s around 100,000 homes were being built each year, most of them at affordable prices. More recently only a few thousand houses were constructed annually. In between two important policy initiatives were launched, one well known and the other much less so. Famously Mrs Thatcher allowed council tenants to buy their own homes, socially and politically the most successful of her policies. But like a lot of her initiatives she paid less interest to some of the less rewarding long-term consequences.

She was often photographed triumphantly sipping a cup of tea in the home of a former council tenant who had become a proud owner of property. But what about those who could not afford to buy homes in the booming property market of the 1980s? The despised councils were prevented from building new rented accommodation. At the same time there were far fewer existing homes available for rent, as so many tenants had become owners.

In 1988 Nicholas Ridley, the Secretary of State for the Environment, announced a less famous follow-up policy. He declared a "housing revolution", in which private landlords would bid to take over council estates. Sadly no new homes were built as a result of this policy. It was a housing revolution without any housing. As with the under funding in the NHS and transport, this is a crisis that has been building up for decades.

So what is the Government doing about it? Ministers recognise the scale of the task, but with an election moving into view they do not want to take any controversial decisions. Gordon Brown has deployed the same technique for housing as he has done for the NHS and the reduction of bureaucracy in the civil service. He has commissioned an independent report to come up with an analysis of the problem and the proposals required to deal with it.

In this case the Government hides behind Kate Barker's report on housing, which was published last week. Ms Barker is a respected economist. The proposals are safely under her name. Ministers are now consulting on her report and will do so for a year, at which point we will be close to entering the official election campaign when there is even less chance that awkward policies will be implemented.

The Barker report is an impressive document, forensic in its analysis and fairly precise in its recommendations. Broadly, she concludes that 120,000 new homes are required each year to meet demand and reduce the rate of price increases to the EU average. Her proposals include more local flexibility in terms of planning, a tax on builders to make more cash available for social housing and additional public spending of around £1bn a year.

All of which led the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to give an interview to a Sunday newspaper under the rousing headline "Planning Battle Looms as Prescott Orders 2 Million Homes". Mr Prescott is responsible for housing in his somewhat disparate department, known as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. But while Mr Prescott is responsible for houses it is not clear that he has ordered any building on the scale implied. To be more precise he has not ordered any building as a result of the Barker report, at least not until the election is out of the way. Mr Prescott is "consulting" and these consultations are at such a preliminary stage that when I asked his department who or which institutions would be building the new homes I got the reply: "That's a good question." Mr Prescott has had plenty of time to come up with an answer. He has been in charge of housing since 1997.

The Government has achieved a considerable amount by moving slowly, seeking consensus before acting and then implementing policies incrementally. There is much to be said for an approach in which a problem is identified, an independent report is commissioned to confirm the nature of the problem, and then ministers seek to get maximum agreement on the way ahead. But only if the government is willing to make full use of the years between elections.

Instead this is an administration easily diverted by the rhythms of the electoral cycle. We are not at the end of the third full year in this term and already it is wary of introducing any more challenging policies. New Labour's manifestos also tend to be free of controversial policies, which means the first year of each term is taken up preparing the ground for substantial measures. This leaves only the second year - and the first half of the third year - as a space for difficult policies that might attract short-term unpopularity. This is not long enough.

Ministers in a landslide parliament recognise there is a housing crisis. They proclaim the policies in a report that would help to address it. But they choose not to act, looking fearfully 15 months ahead to a general election. If they win they will proceed to address the problem. But what if they lose? And what about those trying to buy or rent in the meantime? This government is often accused of being arrogantly impatient, restlessly interfering. The opposite is the case. Quite a lot of the time it is still too fearfully patient.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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