Bell on ... belated solutions for a persistent housing shortfall

Three cheers for deputy prime minister John Prescott. The approval of a major extension of Stevenage may be late in coming but it is no less welcome. As director of the Town and Country Planning Association I did the rounds in 1998 promoting The People: Where Will They Go? edited by Michael Breheny and Peter Hall. Despite a prediction of four million new households and a huge gap between supply and demand, I recall one reporter making no effort to hide his disdain at the book's urgent call for action.

His attitude was that if people did not get themselves on the housing ladder then they must be feckless and should stir themselves. For the media, it was not an issue. Where it did surface it was met by the countryside lobby, a formidable publicity machine fuelled by seven-figure legacies stirring up the home counties to spoil New Labour's second term.

What did they offer? The anti-planning of penny-packet incrementalism with developers and councils slugging it out and a democratic deficit as decisions fall to unelected civil servants on appeal. Would this offer a better promise of funds for much-needed infrastructure or secure a future of more sustainable communities? I see their legacy as five wasted years of prolonged overcrowding and distress for those most in need, when we could have been building homes.

Now we see an emerging portfolio of solutions. Brownfield is producing thousands of homes and the sustainable communities programme will deliver major urban extensions in the South East. Keep it quiet for fear of frightening the horses, but even new towns are on the agenda.

The emerging vision is no less than a 21st century interpretation of the post-war planning and housing agenda. How appropriate that Stevenage, the first new town of that era, should benefit. Harlow, another mark one new town, offers similar possibilities and should receive imaginative treatment. The only regret is that the lack of public land ownership will mean years of wrangling over planning gain, unless a swift agreement can be reached on some form of roof tax.

While at long last we look set to deliver quantity, it is the quality that also counts. My particular beef is the matter of designing for car ownership. The updated PPS3 must be realistic about this or we will be saddled with suburban parking chaos and street blight. As Sir Frederic Osborn said: "Every increase in density lowers some element of amenity.

No exercise of ingenuity, no new idea, no brilliance of genius can at normal atmospheric pressure get a quart into a pint pot." Crack this and we really will be able to party in the streets of Stevenage.

- Graeme Bell is chair of trustees at the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation and a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

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