AAs token and implausible policies disappear, it’s hard to beat the concept of ‘street votes’, signaled in the Queen’s speech last week to ‘solve the country’s housing problems’, as the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat. The idea is that mini-referendums can be held whereby residents of a given street can, if an ‘overwhelming’ majority agrees, decide to expand and extend their properties and lay out lanes or other plots of land.

It may sound good in theory, but the detail is vague, probably because it contains many demons. How do you draw the line that says who votes and who doesn’t? What is the definition of “crushing”? Who organizes and pays for these votes? As campaign charity CPRE has pointed out, a mini-boom in loft conversions and rear extensions is likely to lead to more residential space for those who already have enough, rather than those who have desperately need a decent place to live.

The government’s emphasis on this policy, the benefits of which will be marginal at best, suggests that it has all but given up on seriously addressing housing needs or achieving the 300,000 new homes a year it promised in the manifesto of 2019. Indeed, the housing secretary, Michael Gove, hinted that it could drift towards this target.

The important question is: what could really make a difference in the endless and intractable housing problem? Much of the answer is the one thing this government has not attempted, because it is ideologically and organizationally constrained from doing so, namely positive public intervention in the planning and building of homes and communities. (We are only talking here, it should be specified, of England, the other countries of the union having decentralized planning policies).

Such intervention does not mean loosening the locks in the planning system in order to attract a few more units of private home builders, but creating plans that identify where new homes might be beneficial, combined with practical support for designs that are ecologically, socially and visually successful. It also means making sites viable by assembling land, providing infrastructure and decontaminating pollution and building houses of the type and number that people need. The private sector has always been unable to do so, as manufacturers have little incentive to reduce the value of their products by greatly expanding the offer.

It is not fantastic that modern government, both national and local, can do this. This is happening in other countries. There is a precedent for such intervention in Britain, in the post-war building program new towns, which has created 32 cities in 20 years, where 2.8 million inhabitants live today. Although often looked down upon, places like Milton Keynes continue to grow and receive high satisfaction ratings from their residents. The new towns were built, what is more, at little or no cost to the public treasury, because they were financed by the compulsory purchase of land, then by capturing the added value that results from obtaining planning permission for agricultural or other land.

At present, the planning system, especially in rural areas, is a lottery: landowners who can obtain permission see the value of their property multiply many times over. Rather than fund the pensions and holiday homes of these lucky landowners, this increase can help pay for public benefits. The main barrier to housing growth is the often-founded distrust of new development by people who must live nearby, often referred to as nimbys. They can see that it brings them little benefit and spoils their sight with poorly designed buildings. If capturing land value increases meant that there really was more housing available for their children, or he paid for schools, at least some of the opposition would fade.

No one should pretend that all of this is easy. It’s a fantasy to think that the competing interests of people who already own a home and those desperate for a place to live can always be reconciled without tough decisions. On the other hand, a large part of the mechanisms for coherent and constructive action already exist. We have governmental powers, for things like expropriation and strategic planning, and an apparatus of local authority planners, albeit weakened by budget cuts.

There are ways to build publicly funded housing and capture the uplift. Local authorities indeed build houses and sometimes schools are financed by the development. What is missing is a coordinated will to use these means effectively and on a sufficient scale. The political will for highways, high-speed lines and airports is lacking when it comes to housing.

Curiously, the apparent localism of the concept of street voting is combined, in the new leveling and regeneration bill, with what the Town and Country Planning Association calls for a power grab by central government; the changes proposed in the bill will mean, he says, that there will be “no limits” on the ability of the Secretary of State to overrule local authority decisions. In just one reading, it could be a prelude to decisive and smart action under Gove’s benevolent dictatorship. More likely, we will have the worst of all worlds: inefficiency, uncertainty, poor consultation, destruction of public trust, and cosmetic democracy.

There is clearly a need for housing in this country, resulting in both human misery and economic damage. There is colossal wealth locked away in the development potential of the land. There are legitimate public fears about the development. The means exist to use wealth to meet needs while allaying fears, but there is no evidence that this will happen. Tugendhat fears the Tories will face ‘electoral oblivion’ if they do not solve the housing problem. They deserve to do so.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent