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22 Oct 2002 : Column 169—continued

Dr. Iddon: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the right to buy in connection with rural villages. Will he state whether the Conservative party would give access to all housing association properties in rural villages through the right to buy, just as it did with council housing? If so, I do not have much sympathy with his comments about the lack of affordable housing in rural constituencies.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that intervention, because it allows me to put on record that we are consulting on that matter, and I am certain that we will wish to retain the current exemption that exists for the right to acquire, namely that rural settlements of under 3,000 people are likely to be

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exempt. We will consult on the number, but there will certainly be an exemption or a right to re-acquire in very small rural areas. I want to put that clearly on record.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of affordable housing in rural areas. Does he regret the previous Conservative Administration's policy of providing a 50 per cent. council tax rebate to second homes in rural areas? That policy added to the inflationary impact of the purchase of second homes in such areas. This year, #200 million of taxpayers' money will be spent subsidising the second homes of the wealthy in areas where many thousands of rural folk cannot even afford their first home. Does he regret that, and would he support legislation to remove that council tax discount and make the money available to provide affordable housing in rural areas?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that lengthy intervention. I was one of the first Members to ask for local authorities to be given the discretion to charge full council tax for second and part-time homes. I fully support that policy today; it is in line with Conservative party policy to give local authorities in general more discretion to make decisions at local level.

Ms Oona King: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will give way to the hon. Lady because she is sensible.

Ms King: I understand why the Conservative party has supported and introduced restrictions on the right to buy in rural areas. Please will he tell us why that is not applicable, so far as his party is concerned, to urban areas, where there is a desperate shortage of affordable housing as a result of the right to buy?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady tempts me. I will come to the right to buy later, and I will explain why we wish to pursue the policy that we have adopted.

The crisis of homelessness in rural areas continues to escalate. Since 1997, the number has risen by 13 per cent. and increased at three times the rate of homelessness in urban areas. More than 17,000 rural households are unintentionally homeless and in priority need.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, I want to make some progress, otherwise I will not allow my hon. Friends to contribute. If the hon. Gentleman wants to speak, he can try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There is a drastic shortage of new houses. We are building the lowest number of houses since records began: 160,000 is the lowest number since 1927, excluding the war years. That has given rise to the current housing problems and high market values.

What would the Conservatives do to address the problem of homelessness and build more affordable housing? First, we would ensure there was enough pump-priming to return brownfield land to use for building. That is critical, because it would stop

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increasing amounts of our green belt from being swallowed up by concrete. For there is no doubt about it: if the proposals of the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister to build an extra 100,000 houses in the green belt are enacted, more and more of our green belt and green fields will be swallowed up, and once rural land is under concrete it is very difficult to get it back.

The Government have done two things that have adversely affected the cleaning up of brownfield land. They abolished the derelict land reclamation grant, and they made a muddle of European gap funding. We think some pump-priming is essential to return brownfield land to a state in which developers will want to develop it. The director of the Environmental Industries Commission, Mervin Hyman, recently argued:

Peter Bradley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, I want to make some progress.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested, we shall give careful consideration to the 753,000 houses that are empty. The Minister mentioned a tax allowance to return empty homes above shops to use. Perhaps she will tell us how effective it has been, and how many empty flats have been returned to use. It seems to us that, given the ratio of eight empty houses to one homeless person, there should be some scope to encourage, in particular, institutional landowners with a blanket policy of not letting flats above shops to consider doing so.

In fact, we want to encourage more private sector investment in affordable homes, full stop. That may require us to examine the current tax arrangements, and to seek changes in housing law. At present, very little private sector investment goes into the residential sector in general, let alone the affordable sector.

Mr. Hancock: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to stray too far from his point about pump-priming. He did not explain how the Conservatives would prime the pump. It is important for us to understand how they would overcome the present difficulties in returning brownfield sites to use.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Conservative party has been the most successful at urban regeneration. Members need only recall our schemes in the centre of Leeds, Glasgow and docklands. They need only recall how we managed to accumulate enough land to make developers want to redevelop it, and how we created the infrastructure to enable them to do so.

Mr. Love: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to make progress.

Let us examine the way in which the Liberal Democrats want to reform the housing sectors. It is interesting to look at some of their proposals, such as

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the equalisation of tax on greenfield sites and renovation of houses. Do they really propose an additional 5 per cent. of value-added tax on houses in the green fields and green belts? In fact, they propose a 5 per cent. and a 7 per cent. rate. Even the lower rate, if imposed on a house with the average price of #153,000, would have a considerable effect. Are the Liberal Democrats really telling their constituents that they will add between #7,500 and #10,000 to the price of each new house? Have they costed their proposal, and established whether it will be tax-neutral? Have they taken into account the VAT sixth directive, which will not allow a zero rate on the renovation of houses and provides for a minimum of 5 per cent.?

Mr. Don Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Having attacked the hon. Gentleman, I will allow him to explain what he is going to do.

Mr. Foster: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes: we are well aware of the directive, and I hope he heard me when I said that we proposed an equalisation of the VAT.

The hon. Gentleman can attack the details of our policy as much as he likes, but I wish we could hear some detail from him. He has said that he will pump-prime the return of derelict land to use, but has not told us how he will do it. He has said that he will return empty houses to use, but has not told us how he will do that either. Let us at least hear some decent policy proposals, so that we can attack them if we do not agree with them. We cannot do that if we do not know what they are.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall deal with our right-to-buy proposals in due course. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear about them.

Let me now turn to the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). Not only would he impose VAT on all new houses, thus adding between #7,500 and #10,000 to the price—his constituents will be very interested in that proposal—but on 24 July he said:

The hon. Gentleman continued, even more extraordinarily,

The hon. Gentleman proposes to tax developers at a rate of about #50 billion. How does he expect any new houses to be built? He wants to put the price up, and tax the developers by a huge amount. He knows perfectly well that the uniform business rate affects all businesses, not just developers. Imposing such a huge tax just on developers is likely to wipe out the development business altogether.

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