Let people live where they wish

Paul Barker argues that John Prescott's attempts to restrict new house-building are wrong

Every political party needs some very clear, simple manifesto offer, which brings down to earth, for voters' benefit, all the windy clouds of rhetoric. For the Labour Party, since the second world war, this has usually revolved around the party's presumed status as guardian of the NHS. For the Conservatives, for almost as long, the issue was not hospitals, but houses. If it's not careful, Labour will hand this offer back to the Tories on a plate. It will mean far more, to most people, than any amount of anti-euro speechifying from the back of William Hague's tour truck.

In the South-east, jobs are booming. It is the obvious place to build more houses. But that thought panics John Prescott. Hence, his 7th March balancing-act. His latest South-east planning diktat produced the Guardian headline: "Prescott green light for building boom." The Daily Telegraph was more accurate: "Prescott practises sleight of hand." He wants to keep the brakes on. To compound the error, he is also arguing that the Budget should impose VAT on new construction. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown is being tempted to punish house-buyers another way, by increasing the stamp duty on sales. But, as people get more prosperous, they will want better, more spacious houses. And those who are not prosperous will want to move where the jobs are.

In Britain, houses helped make the 20th century the Tory century. In a recent opinion poll, Anthony Eden was voted worst prime minister of the past 100 years - no doubt because of his 1956 Suez debacle, which terminated all dreams of empire. But even the incompetent can preside over major social change. It was Eden who said: "Our objective is a nationwide property-owning democracy." Until disastrous John Major, home-ownership was the Conservatives' unique selling proposition, most notably with Margaret Thatcher's vote-winning right-to-buy programme. Symbolically, her constituency, Finchley, is spec-built heaven.

Contrariwise, Labour has always been the plansters' party. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which nationalised development rights, is almost the only postwar nationalisation that has not been repealed. In practice, planning is a triumph of utopian hope over experience. It is essentially a defence of haves against have-nots.

The Housing Corporation recently reported that the North England has seen a collapse in demand for houses, both publicly and privately owned, in districts without jobs and without much hope. Liverpool continues to lose 1 per cent of its population a year. Central Manchester is full of bright new bars, but huge tracts of it are still being abandoned. Many more people would move to the South-east if they could find a cheap enough house.

Much of the planning process is an inequitable battle to prevent this. The usual argument is: "Take more jobs to where the people are." Fifty years' experience has shown that the branch-plant economy is always vulnerable. On Tyneside, Siemens never occupied the factory that local regional development managers thought was God's gift to Newcastle. And all those call-centres? As soon as the elocution teachers of India polish up the local pronunciation of English, the call-centre mills will abandon Belfast, Cardiff, Darlington and Perth. British Airways' ticketing is already done in Bombay.

The people should be allowed to go where the natural growth of jobs is taking place. No, not "allowed". That's too patronising, as planning often is. They should be encouraged, and even tempted.

Prescott and his housing minister, Nick Raynsford, have said the answer to this pressure is to build in a different, more aesthetic way, ideally on ex-industrial sites. The history of politicians and officials trying to determine the styling of new houses is littered with disasters. Raynsford has mocked suburban builders' "indifferent collection of boxes". He and Prescott say that they yearn for Victorian and even Georgian design. But in those days, almost everyone walked to and from work. That is why the streets were lined with pubs. Those days won't return.

There are other ways of tackling the problem. The most offensive is to try to browbeat voters into changing their legitimate ambitions - citing all the politically correct environmental reasons. The most cynical is to wait for the next property crash to bring house prices down.

Professor Stephen Crow's report on South-east planning last autumn aroused much Nimby anger from its forecast that another million or so homes were needed over the next 20 years. Forecasting is a dodgy art. But his core questions were right. He asked: Do you want the economy of the South-east to stagnate, or at any rate perform at less than its full potential? Do you want the planning process to frustrate, or at any rate do less than it could, to assist the desire of people to have a decent home to live in?

The response from a consortium of 138 south-eastern local authorities, each defending its own interests, was to spit into the prevailing economic wind (I assume that dogs in their manger can spit). In order to curb the popular passion for moving around, they asked the government to "pursue international agreements to increase the cost of air travel". Yet Heathrow is Britain's biggest port, as the lower Thames and the lower Mersey once were. If it means more businesses and more jobs, we should be grateful.

And more houses. Otherwise, Hague and Michael Portillo will be handed the Tories' classic aspirational issue again.