By a perverse irony, news that housing starts are now down 52 per cent on a year ago arrives in the same week as the government gets advice that its targets of 2 million extra homes by 2016 and 3 million by 2020 may not be enough to meet demand.
In a report published this morning the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit (NHPAU) advises housing minister Caroline Flint that these are the only lower level of what is required in regional spatial strategies. The upper level is 2.3 million by 2016 and 3.5 million by 2020.
NHPAU chair Stephen Nickell made a valiant attempt to justify the new figures on the Today programme this morning under sceptical questioning from Jim Naughtie. There might be a severe credit crunch in the short term, he argued, but increased supply was needed to stop prices escalating in the long term.
But Cllr Keith Mitchell, the Conservative chairman of the South East Regional Assembly, had a simple description for the new higher figures. He used Yvette Cooper’s term for councillors who were resisting more homes: ‘bonkers’.
The chances of meeting even the lower of the NHPAU targets seem somewhere between remote and slim. The time when the government could confidently proclaim the need for more homes and the strategy for delivering them backed up by the Barker and Callcutt reviews and the NHPAU’s advice seems more like 12 years than 12 months ago.
Even at the time the argument seemed questionable - in particular it seemed to ignore the effect of mortgage finance (the credit splurge that preceeded the crunch) and the difference between demand and need.
Now, with mortgages unavailable, the housebuilding industry in a state of collapse and planning authorities dominated by Conservatives who don’t even need to say nimby, the delivery mechanism seems fundamentally flawed.
The only response at the moment seems to be to hope that the mortgage market will ‘return to normal’. Something more radical than that is needed - and soon - if we are not to lurch from a credit crunch to a new affordability crisis.