Property developers would be forced to speed up the delivery of new homes built on former public land under contracts being considered by Yvette Cooper, the housing minister.

Ms Cooper believes the government’s target of building 3m homes by 2020 may not be reached because developers are taking too long to complete projects.

The release and development of public land, such as former transport depots or defence sites, is seen as a vital element in the government’s housing policy, identified by Gordon Brown, prime minister, as a top priority.

Key to the drive is English Partnerships, the government quango, which owns thousands of acres of brownfield land. Ministers believe that about 200,000 homes could be built by 2016 on land owned by EP and other public bodies.

Housebuilders that agree to build on EP land typically sign binding contracts which specify a timeframe for delivery.

Ms Cooper believes those contracts could be tightened to force a more rapid rate of construction. She also wants them applied to other sites – owned by different public bodies – where developers may have more latitude on how quickly they work.

“For the sake of first-time buyers and future generations, we need to make sure we are building more homes,” said Ms Cooper. “That also means looking at practical delivery. On some sites it can still be hopelessly slow.”

The proposed contractual arrangements are expected to be recommended next week by John Calcutt, the former chief executive of EP, who is reviewing the housebuilding system for the government.

The government set a housing target of 240,000 homes a year in its July housing green paper – a 20 per cent increase on the previous target.

At the same time it has emerged that housing starts in the first half of 2007, at 86,269, were 9 per cent lower than in the same period in 2006. Developers blame delays in the planning system, but Ms Cooper argues new starts can be slow even after permission to develop a site has been granted.

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