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Viewpoint Commitment is key to the homes issue

AGENDA - John Prescott's pledge to build £60,000 houses is a distraction, writes Paul Morrell

WHAT KIND of analysis went on when the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sat down to consider an aspirational target cost for a house, culminating in somebody saying: 'So, we'll make it £60,000 then'?

Of course it is always easy to pick holes in a figure which looks like the product of political headlining - so let's. Apart from the suspected arbitrary selection of the target itself, one also wonders whether any account had been taken of the host of parallel Government initiatives that presumably rank equal in priority but will tend to drive up the cost of construction.These include the Eco Homes initiative (with 27 categories of suggested improvement); Secure by Design (calling for high-security lighting, doors and locks); Adaptable Roof Spaces (promoting steeper roofs to allow for future loft conversions) and rising standards of energy performance, for example through the revised Parts L of the Building Regulations.

More than this, though, why would the Government's castigation of the house building sector about its cost base have any greater effect than self-interest, given that any reduction in building cost would normally translate directly to increased profitability?

Through all of this there echoes the thought that, if you don't like the answer you keep getting, it might be worth thinking about changing the question. Prefabrication and other modern methods of construction make great reading, but time and time again the things we read about remain one-off (and frequently expensive) experiments.To get the real economies of scale that repetition can bring, the supply side needs to be master of its own destiny, with a large programme of a type that permits repetition.Many of the registered social landlords currently expected to respond to the problems of affordable housing also operate on a scale which gives them little buying power in the marketplace and are beset by uncertainties of funding which make long-term commitments to suppliers impractical.

There needs to be some consolidation of demand, so that suppliers who might be inclined to respond to the call for a more affordable home are given the confidence to invest in the conceptual thinking, design, manufacture and logistics necessary to bring a new product to market.This will also mean the thinking power of the supply side can be applied to the whole range of housing needs, rather than to an arbitrary one-off solution to a single unit size that will not be appropriate in many circumstances and which may well embed certain undesirable principles such as tightening space standards and inappropriate densities.

There are signs that this thinking is already abroad, for example with English Partnerships' London Wide Initiative, and the Housing Corporation's invitation to private sector developers to pitch for £200 million of its affordable housing programme (well, it's a start). Indeed, the announcement of the competition for the £60,000 house itself states that the programme could be for up to 1,000 homes and recognises that only a proportion of them might be built for £60,000.

This feels like the way to go, and we could do without the potential distraction of target practice at the £60,000, which risks appealing more to those seeking publicity than to finding a replicable solution to a perennial problem. In short we need volume, underpinned by commitment.

The market's answer to the need for affordable housing is: more housing.