Leading Article: The green grass of homes is territory Prescott can con quer

Share
Related Topics
What is a Deputy Prime Minister for? The question has often been asked since last May and usually answered in terms unflattering to John Prescott. Yet his invisibility during the travails of Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary has stood him in good stead. John Prescott has been out of the limelight because he has been getting on with the job of being a minister, as opposed to being a sex symbol, father, controversialist or prime minister manque. Those with their ears close to the ground note Mr Prescott's assiduity in keeping up his circle of contacts within the Labour Party at large. During the past few days it has been hard not to be impressed by the imagination the Secretary for Environment, Transport and the Regions is bringing to a sticky wicket - the claggy mud of all those green fields threatened with the bulldozer in order to supply Britain's burgeoning households with somewhere to live.

Mr Prescott can take some comfort from the fact that had the Tories won the last election, they would be in exactly the same position as he is - faced with official projections of rising household numbers and the torrent of local opposition likely to greet their manifestation as bricks and mortar in local fields. The Tories, desperately trying to reinvent themselves as green defenders of established property interests, have yet to live down the memory of Nicholas Ridley, whose enthusiasm for new building in Hampshire fields evaporated when it came to housing within site of his mansion in Gloucestershire. That was then; the problem now sits on Mr Prescott's desk. He is an urban MP - for a city which has accomplished much recently in urban infill, but has yet to bring the middle classes back into its centre to live. He must not let his thinking about relative densities and amenity be captured by vociferous shire-dwellers. It is an issue on which middle England is split.

With him, too, questions of social justice ought to weigh heavily - including his duty to the housing needs and the environment of the generations to come, as well as being fair to those whose present happiness development might affect.

Let's have no nonsense about empty space in the Highlands or Toxteth: people must be accommodated where the jobs are. Builders are attracted to Hertfordshire and the green belt around Newcastle upon Tyne for good reasons: because the land (once planning permission has been granted) is cheap; because people (including the sons and daughters of those already comfortably housed) want to live there. If he is going to thwart the developers Mr Prescott has to offer not just alternative sites, which do exist in some measure in the "brown fields" and urban cores, but sites that will support housing attractive to those able to buy and rent. That does not just mean property, but schools, parks and amenities too.

For housing policy is plainly not just about the physical envelope of housing. Mr Prescott needs to remind his cabinet colleagues of this self- evident truth. If Hackney schools get better, it might become feasible to develop those (few) sites for private housing in the borough. But that will take years and probably extra spending by Chancellor Gordon Brown. Harriet Harman and Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, also have a responsibility. That official total of 4.4 million extra English households required by 2016 is based on assumptions about the rate at which they are formed. That, in turn, depends on divorce rates and social-benefit arrangements. They can be changed. Welfare reform and environmental conservation are closely linked.

But for the link to be benign, two conditions must be met. The first is new policy. At the moment government is half in and half out of planning. The state will have to do more than tell Surrey and Shropshire to make land available on the basis of projections of household numbers. If some of that development is to be diverted to cities, the state will have to spend, and tax, creating good places for the new homes. It is good news that Mr Prescott has put his thinking cap on and is considering evening up the tax burdens on green field and urban development.

But ultimately it is not just about policy. He is going to have do some shrewd politicking, too. People in shire England will have to budge up. Whether they do so with good grace partly depends on political management, that is to say on John Prescott's skills. That could sound like a political passport to perdition. Yet it does not have to be that way. Here is a national dilemma - fitting more housing into an overcrowded island. It is one where personal and group interests diverge, where government is in the best position to see and sell the public interest. That is not a bad basis for success in politics. Here is John Prescott's opportunity for greatness as well as his nemesis.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Technician

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Team Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Shunter / HGV Driver

£23172 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest growing h...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager / Estate Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an experienced Resident...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Greek Yes voters were so shy they didn’t even turn up to the polling stations

John Rentoul
epa04832814 Supporters of the 'No' campaign wave flags and react after the first results of the referendum at Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, 05 July 2015. Greek voters in the referendum were asked whether the country should accept reform proposals made by its creditors. 10367444  

Greek referendum: As Greece spirals towards disaster, a new era of extremist politics begins

Daphne Halikiopoulou
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate