Something big needs saying about housing. I guess Ed Miliband thinks he has achieved it. Maybe, but when I read his speech it struck me as bluster and a recipe for chaos, peppered with some rather cute ideas.
We need new homes. We also need good planning. The success or failure of new towns, urban extensions and housing estates depends on location, fortune, ambition and leadership. But above all those towns that work are a triumph of planning.
For every housing scheme that has been an outstanding success, another has failed. For every booming new town like Milton Keynes or Welwyn Garden City, there is a Cumbernauld or Corby.
The failure of Labour’s eco towns initiative should give Ed Miliband pause for thought. But every politician loves to throw out a planning initiative or three when there is an election coming.
He should be especially cautious as the new towns nudging into view are little more than commutervilles. Mayfield in Sussex, Meriden on the HS2 line in the Midlands, maybe even Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, are exurbia personified.
I am not against new towns. I am a fan of Milton Keynes. But I hate lacklustre developments that are not great places to live. And I don’t ever think that the decisions should be in the hands of ministers rather than local councils. Localism is not a word that crosses the lips of a great centralist like Ed Miliband.
What of Labour’s other planning announcements?
I give thumbs up to councils ramping up charges where developers are failing to build on land that is has planning permission. But I am wary about compulsory purchasing undeveloped land and passing it to a new developer. Technically, this will remove the land from the council’s five year land supply and, under national planning rules, will lead to many councils facing an unplanned free-for-all in house building.
I am even more nervous about his plans to allow towns and cities to expand into their hinterlands whatever their neighbouring councils think. This is not so much a “duty to cooperate” as a “duty to conflict.” This “right to grow” will create a new divisive war between urban and rural areas, and undermine localism.
The housing situation is desperate and needs clear thinking. What it doesn’t need is a new government creating conflict. If ministers impose new towns, that is what we will get.
A million new homes will be a very good thing, but Labour has yet to say how they will be funded. Just bullying the private sector to get more built will not suffice. The government will need to dip into its pockets or let councils borrow more if the target is to be remotely achievable. And these houses need to be affordable too, Ed said nothing about that.
But I will take my hat off to Ed Miliband for one thing. He made housing a centre point of his speech.
Housebuilding barely figured in the Coalition Agreement. If we are in coalition after 2015, we must ensure that it is brought to centre stage.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice