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

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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.

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