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Will Howie Targeting home truths

Last week, the government's plans for housing over the next decade or two were severely berated in the House of Commons. Irate opposition MPs were seriously concerned that the government planned to build 4.4M houses between 1991 and 2016. There is, of course, an element of old-time humbug about this attack, since six of these 25 years had already passed before the government came to power and, in any case, the 4.4M target came from a policy statement, Household growth: where shall we live? published by the previous government in November 1996. So if John Prescott, the man now in charge, is to be blamed, some of the blame has to be shared with his predecessor John Gummer.

The inter-party squabbling should now be laid to one side and the problem of housing the nation faced in a rational way. Two major sticks are currently being used, in Parliament and in part of the press, to beat the government: whether or not the 4.4M target is right, and whether the government is intent on destroying the green belt or, as one over-excited columnist put it, the 'rape of the landscape'.

In the nature of things, the arithmetic must be suspect for it is difficult enough to look ahead 10 years, let alone 25. What is more, previous estimates of housing need have always turned out to be too small. It would not be too surprising if the present target turned out to be too high in an attempt to avoid a shortfall.

At first sight, the increased demand for 4.4M new homes in the 25 years to 2016 is surprising, for it means an increase of 23% of households to a total of 23.6M. The population is only expected to increase by 3.6M over the same period. So the demand must come from elsewhere.

Seemingly, it will come from a variety of sources. These include international immigration main- ly from the European Union, the need for social housing, changes in lifestyle leading to more people living alone, internal migration and a one-off missing million people who failed to register at the last census because of fear of the poll tax.

Obviously, estimates in each of these categories is subject to error. The immigration target, for instance, assumes an inflow of around 850,000 people who will need 500,000 homes. Since this would suggest a rapid increase in the number of Europeans coming here, it could be wrong. The figures for social housing are also suspect, accounting for between a third and half of the target. It is hard to believe the government could be persuaded to fund social housing on that scale.

The other figures can be queried as well, and the missing million must be more of a guess than a statistic. So, it seems reasonable to suppose that the target could be reduced. The government, however, is sticking to John Gummer's figures.

That brings us to the other stick. Is the government a despoiler of the green belt? The first thing to notice is that a good deal of nonsense is spoken about covering Britain with concrete. Less than 12% of England's area is urbanised, and if Scotland and Wales were included that percentage would be smaller. About the same proportion is included in green belts, and that has doubled in the last 20 years, leaving more than three quarters of England as countryside. Even if he wanted to, Prescott would be hard put to make a dent in that.

Prescott has been fiercely attacked for one or two recent green belt decisions, especially one in Hertfordshire. It seems that the last government asked the county council to find room for 65,000 new homes. With some effort, it found space for 55,000 of these in existing urban areas, the famed brownfield sites. It then designated 700ha of green belt for housing development to cries of horror on all sides. But it then added 2,300ha to its green belt to compensate.

But that cannot always be done, and Prescott will follow Gummer and hope that at least half the target figures will be met in towns and cities. That must be a good thing. If the demand for housing leads to a revival of city life, that is to be welcomed.

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