A green field in Northern Hertfordshire – a beautiful rural scene straight out of EM Forster? Or would it be made more beautiful by thousands of smiling happy families in shiny new homes?

The house building faultline across Britain runs through this field.

On the other side of the road, urban Stevenage – desperate to expand.

For years, it promoted plans to build thousands of houses here. But the rural district council fought it and eventually won.

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Now though, the spectre of council-to-council planning wars is back, worrying local CPRE campaigners, who say it is always the green spaces that suffer. “Once you build on the green belt, its gone forever,” it says.

That’s a response to Ed Miliband’s pronouncement of a “housing crisis” to be dealt with by offering urban councils the “right to grow” into rural councils guilty of “homeblocking”.

The Labour leader thinks a lack of affordable housing can be wrapped into his argument about a cost of living crisis.
He turned up in Stevenage today – to back its plans to grow beyond its borders.

The Labour target? 200,000, houses a year.

That’s a target for England, which was a woeful 107,000 in 2012/13. But Mr Miliband may find that voters even in Stevenage, are not so gung ho for new housing. Young mums who might benefit from new house build seemed more vexed by a loss of green space.

Anyway, the official opposition labelling of housing as a “crisis”, is a new landmark in this debate. Is there a crisis? Is not the lack of housebuilding in fact the democratic will of those people in Britain who can be bothered to vote at local elections? Well, right now we are told by all main parties that housebuilding is desirable.The economic reality is a woeful recent cross-party record on house building.

The ONS has now confirmed and slightly revised numbers that I myself calculated a few weeks ago.

In the first year of New Labour, 190,760 houses were completed.. across the UK.

It took a decade to drive that up to 219,070 a year…but nearly half were those buy-to-let friendly flats, not houses.

Flatbuilding, not housebuilding.

So little surprise that during the crisis, that annual total collapsed during the recession – falling by more than a third to 137,400.

Labour blamed the financial crisis which nearly bankrupted many housebuilders, the Conservatives blamed Labour.

Now there WAS a brief rally, under the coalition.

But who can be surprised that after wide-scale planning changes iniitiated by a letter from Eric Pickles, and massive cuts to government funding for housebuilding, the total fell back.

In fact in 2012/13 total UK housing completions fell to just 135,200. Strip out Northern Ireland  to compare with historical tables for Britain (Hat tip Noble Francis) and these are he lowest peacetime annual total for housebuilding on some measures, since the 1920s.
Curiously this fact has not ignited much media debate (previous lows under Labour were prominently featured on front pages at the time) or government soul searching.

It would be reasonable for a government which wants to boast about housebuilding and claims it is a good thing, to explore the contribution of its own policies to such a failure.

Perhaps that contribution is nothing. Perhaps it is all the fault of the eurozone crisis, and actually the weather did play a part.

At the time, though, many people warned that aggressively disposing of Labour’s planning system and slashing housing budgets would inevitably lead to one thing.

(Due to a curious data error earlier this year, these numbers were not available at the time they should have fuelled the public debate).

At the very least, acknowledging these numbers would make more sense than blithely boasting about how the next quarter was a record growth rate (from this historical low, of course it would be), or adding up a few years to make the number sound bigger. Jon Snow in his debate with Housing Minister Kris Hopkins and shadow Emma Reynolds, finally did get some acknowledgement today.

Having said that, the opposition need a catharsis of its own. Gordon Brown promised 3 million new homes at the rate of 200,000 a year  as his number one priority upon entering office, and the rate of housebuilding promptly halved.

And a party which now claims that the housing crisis is inextricably linked with the cost of living crisis needs to find answers to

a. the trebling of real house prices

and b. a fundamental tenure shift in much of the housing stock from first time buyers towards buy-to-let landlord investors, on its watch (or lack of watch).

So we have two bald men fighting over the comb of housing policy, a housebuilding industry more interested in investor flats than family homes, disproportionate effort on boosting housing demand and prices, ahead of the increase in supply.

So both sides talk boldly of building more houses – but both have failed miserably: and this may just be democracy. Not enough people actually vote at a local level for more houses.

But that is surely failing Britain’s next generation.

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