It was hardly a niche topic before, but until recently housing has been confined to the more technocratic regions of a party manifesto or political speech.
Pledges about how many hundreds of thousands of homes need building don’t quite have the same ring as an emotive promise on the NHS or child benefit.
Yet few could argue that Britain’s housing crisis (these days I actually favour the term “emergency”) is now up there with the most mainstream of issues in the run-up to polling day on 7 May.
Developers have enjoyed many years operating relatively below the radar in building our “resi” schemes, but public opinion is unprecedentedly contemptuous, and politicians are trying desperately to show that they are listening.
It is galling - although rather unsurprising - that in this context, those politicians are still obsessed with the demand side of the equation when we so obviously need to concentrate on supply.
The right-to-buy pledge from the Conservatives really was the tip of the iceberg. Without dwelling on the fact that it could push some already beleaguered housing associations to the brink of insolvency, the idea is just the latest example of politicians’ failure to tackle that systematic supply-demand imbalance that tends to make owning a home such a mouth-watering one-way bet.
Granted, the sale of more expensive homes under right-to-buy could fund the building of some new homes to replace those lost, but we all know this won’t be enough.
Currently, the government leaves it to private developers to make up for the chronic shortfall, through our section 106 contributions. That system is broken, though, as it fundamentally pits private sector developers against a planning authority, with the outcome being determined by who blinks first.
Can we really blame well-funded developers for thinking of their shareholders instead of “giving generously” to this most celebrated of national causes?
The government, and not the profit-driven private sector, needs to figure out how to increase the annual rate of house building to 200,000 (better still, the 300,000 called for by the Liberal Democrats).
Indeed, given that the supply of new homes in the UK is tightly controlled by a small number of large operators, with 23 firms responsible for 70% of sales, what we need from our next administration is urgent and radical intervention.
When the banks got into trouble in 2008, the government invested £50bn to buy their shares and provided £500bn in loans. This was a radical solution. Whoever is in charge after 7 May needs to recognise that this problem is just as serious, and act accordingly.
I have said already on these pages that one radical answer involves revising the green belt, but this sacred cow looks set to survive beyond the next parliament; it is not far behind the NHS in the category of “preserve at all costs”.
However, even if the correct radical solution were to be found and even if we did manage to solve the supply problem and rapidly increase the amount of homes available to people, then we would still need to physically build them.
This is not straightforward, as we simply don’t have the capacity or the skills available. A bold move would be for the next government to set up, for 15 years, a government-owned construction company. It could become a training vehicle to deliver job opportunities for tens of thousands of people, building a sustainable supply chain and facilitating the necessary large-scale delivery of new homes that we so badly need.
That might sound like a Keynesian level of intervention, and not to everyone’s taste, but the government has admitted that housing is national infrastructure. So why should it be treated any differently to HS2 in the way it is controlled and used by central government? Better that than the current status quo: a government continuing to cynically devote itself to housing demand, while leaving our country’s supply crisis to fester.
Richard Upton is chief executive, Cathedral Group, and executive director, Development Securities