Will Abbott be a housing visionary?

There are lessons for the Abbott government in Britain's attempts to solve its housing shortage, but real vision will be needed to grasp them.

What is the difference between visionary policy and social engineering when it comes to solving a housing shortage? 

Britain's coalition government is having trouble deciding, as it considers a plan to build new 'garden cities' to ease housing shortages in south-east England.

Controversy has erupted over a 'secret plan' supposedly being supressed by the Cameron government, which Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg wants released. 

He told fellow MPs late last week: "I believe in garden cities and that's why, as a government, we are committed to publishing a prospectus on them, which I very much hope we will do as soon as possible.” 

So a Liberal Democrat social-engineer (and deputy leader in the coalition government) is pressuring his conservative prime minister, David Cameron, to be visionary on solving the housing supply problem.

That's unlikely to go well. Britain's existing 'garden cities' and 'new towns' were developed in the early and mid 20th century to combine the benefits of country living with the services of the city. While they have mostly evolved into thriving communities, the best sites for new cities are populated by Tory voters – hence Mr Cameron's reluctance to talk about plonking a new city anywhere.

Back on this side of the world, in recent times it was the Gillard government that had most to say about shifting people out of capital cities and into new lives and homes in regional centres. In 2010 it set up a dedicated Department of Regional Development, headed by Simon Crean, and created around $10 billion of regional spending packages to help secure the support of independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

Labor talked up the development of regional cities, offered cash incentives for job-seekers to move to the regions, tipped in money for housing infrastructure - backed by a 'roll-in' of the national broadband network to get the regions connected as speedily as possible - and even considered tying new centres together with high speed rail. 

Labor wanted cities such as Bendigo, Geelong and Newcastle to expand to take pressure off overburdened Melbourne and Sydney.

Smacks of leftie social engineering, right? 

Well not necessarily. In Britain, the nation's largest pension fund manager, Legal & General, has earmarked £5 billion ($A9.3 billion) to invest in building five new towns across the south east. 

L&G boss Nigel Wilson told The Telegraph: "If we can bring communities with us and agree planning, we'd like to help build several new towns across the country. We're already developing towns within cities, in partnership with enlightened local authorities and boroughs."

And this is where the charge of 'social engineering' starts to break down. House building in Australia is heavily regulated by local councils – that is, heavily 'socially engineered'. As Robert Gottliebsen explained yesterday (Sydney's property dam is about to burst), what Nigel Wilson would call 'enlightened' councils look set embrace greater numbers of apartment developments. 

That's the 'towns within cities' concept, and if that trend gathers pace in Australia it will go a long way to addressing the chronic affordability problem that has started to put first home-buyers off owning their own homes at all. 

But the other step, which is getting too little attention in Australia, is developing small regional centres into larger ones, or building stand alone 'towns' some distance from the perimeter of major cities rather than continuing the suburban sprawl – areas of our cities too often become isolated pockets of social disadvantage.

When there is massive pent-up demand for housing, a government that helps facilitate private funds to invest and create new 'towns' shouldn't be dismissed as engaging in 'social engineering'.  

Prime Minister Abbott has already expressed a desire to see government departments moved to regional centres – such as the NDIS being based in Geelong. And at present there's a stoush brewing over plans to shift 56 senior Department of Human Services jobs from Hobart back to Canberra.

While government jobs can help boost regional centres, it’s the private sector in some of the Abbott government's 'five pillars' that can sustain them – tourism, manufacturing innovation, agriculture exports, education and research and mining exports. 

Helping develop regional centres that show potential in those areas fits with the Abbott manifesto, including its plans to develop Northern Australia. And unlike David Cameron in the UK, Abbott doesn't face major political roadblocks – he might even be able to walk away in a few years’ time claiming the title of 'visionary'.