Clegg: Build on the countryside to save it

A new wave of garden cities is needed to solve Britain's housing shortage and save the countryside from urban sprawl, Nick Clegg has said.

The deputy prime minister used a speech to the National Housebuilding Council to back new longer-term measures to encourage big housing projects of up to 25,000 new homes at a time.

He called on Whitehall to find ways to encourage a fresh wave of garden cities and suburbs comparable in scale to the 20th century housing expansions that created places like Milton Keynes, Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage and Peterborough.

"These places didn't spring up of their own accord," Clegg said.

"People got together and made them happen: through imagination; ambition; leadership.

He concluded: "This is the moment to revive the ambition of those who came before us, in order to create a better future for those who will follow us. In keeping with our great British traditions: it’s time to think big."

Clegg's move is a bold one, as it puts him at odds with those keen to preserve greenbelt land and the countryside in general.

Kate Houghton, planning officer at the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, commented: "We hope to work closely with the government to make sure that this initiative does not repeat the mistakes of the last government's eco towns programme, which was criticised by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats."

She said the proposals would be tested on whether they prioritise the reinvigoration of existing towns and cities, make the most of brownfield land and build at 'higher densities' which make public transport, cycling and walking viable transport options.

Clegg pointed out that only 13.5% of British land is actually urbanised, however, and point to the country's growing housing crisis.

The UK will grow by 230,000 households every year over the next decade, but housing construction is falling short by around 100,000 per year – sending property prices higher and higher.

Clegg hopes that the traditional conservatism of the babyboomer generation will be overcome as younger generations struggle to get on to the property ladder.

"Parents want their sons and daughters to have good, safe, affordable options, close to work, close to public transport, close to hospitals and schools," he added.

"Rural areas want young families to stay in the area to help keep the community alive. And as we, as a society, become more open to development that creates the space for politicians to be bold."

The deputy prime minister's ambition is likely to be tempered by disputes within the coalition about the nature of the incentives to be offered to developers, however.

He hinted at a "lively debate" taking place within the government about potential deals to encourage local authorities and developers to unblock housing projects.

Clegg announced the government is 'unblocking' a number of stalled housing projects which will provide up to 48,600 new homes, helped by £225 million of funding.

His proposals were met with a cautious welcome from the National Housing Federation, which warned that the UK has not been building enough homes for decades.

"More than the human cost of not enough homes, housing has a crucial role to play in the country's economic recovery," chief executive David Orr said.

"Every £1 spent on housing puts £3 into the wider economy, and every new home built creates 1.5 jobs in construction and up to four times that number in the wider supply chain, helping people back into work."

Shadow housing minister Jack Dromey said the government had made "announcement after announcement followed by failure after failure", however.

Commenting ahead of Clegg's speech, he pointed out that the coalition had cut the Labour government's affordable homes programme by 60%.

"Rather than more empty promises we need the government to take real action now and to tackle the housing crisis and boost our flatlining economy," he said.

"That is why they should back Labour's call to use the windfall from the 4G auction to build 100,000 more affordable homes and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and give a stamp duty holiday to first time buyers to help get them on the housing ladder."