Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 265-279)




  265. Welcome to the Committee. Can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
  (Mr Wakeford) I am Richard Wakeford, Chief Executive of the Countryside Agency and Jo Lavis who works in the housing side of the Agency.

  266. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Wakeford) If you would allow me a couple of minutes I would be grateful because I wanted to set out the big scene. We are interested in getting the right housing built in the countryside where about 20 per cent of people live. From that 20 per cent of people about 30,000 new households a year are forming because of the way in which we are living our lives (living longer and all those sorts of things which you know already). The net migration figures show that another 40,000 or so households are moving into the countryside each year. The reason why that is important is that they are buying on the market and unless we actually build sufficient supply of houses then the prices of houses on the market are going up which makes it very difficult for anyone who is growing up in the countryside to find a home that they could buy. At the same time the Right to Buy that you were talking about has already decimated—although not in its technical sense—public housing, affordable housing in the countryside. Fourteen per cent of rural housing in the countryside is public or social rented compared with 23 per cent in urban areas. I just wanted to put on record in the frankest terms that we estimate a need for 10,000 new affordable housing units per annum over the next ten years, split about half and half between villages of less than 3,000 population and market towns of between 3,000 and 10,000. I know you are interested in solutions, so I would rather you asked us about solutions, but I just wanted to set that rather blunt picture on the record, if you would not mind.

  267. Basically your memorandum claims the planning system is the main constraint. Can you justify that?
  (Mr Wakeford) We were leafing through some papers just before we came round here this morning and I came across a letter dated 1 December 1992 from one Richard Wakeford who was head of development plans and policies at the Department of the Environment. It said, "Correspondence from local planning authorities and the need for the Department to intervene in draft planning policies has made us aware that the implementation of affordable housing policies is causing some local planning authorities difficulty. The enclosed draft guidelines do not represent a change of policy; rather they elaborate current policies. They explain more clearly what is or is not permissible in order to enable local planning authorities to set out plan policies that are more likely to survive legal challenge." The difficulty is that ten years on—

  Chairman: It was a waste of time sending the letter then, was it not?

Mrs Dunwoody

  268. It shows we should not trust this Richard Wakeford.
  (Mr Wakeford) The fact is that this is not a new issue. It is a struggle around the boundaries of the planning system and we have learned from the continuing uncertainty that local authorities have. Large funding amounts that are at stake, in a sense, because if a housing site in the countryside is unconstrained by occupancy in any sense, it is probably worth £100,000. If it is constrained to be designated for affordable housing it is probably not worth more than £5,000 or £10,000. For each housing plot there is an enormous amount at stake. So therefore it is not surprising that local authorities are treading gingerly and that land owners in particular are very defensive about providing affordable housing as well as market housing. That has led the Agency to develop the scheme which is set out in the annex to the submission to the Committee which we have called Sites for Social Diversity Policy. We are coming up now with positive proposals to try and make the best of the planning system as it is currently drafted.

  269. So the Government wants to protect the countryside; you, as its Agency are supposed to do that, but what you are really saying is "Let us get some building done in the countryside".
  (Mr Wakeford) Protecting the countryside means protecting rural communities as much as the rural environment. We know that there is scope within the countryside within many settlements to build new houses within the character of that settlement so that you can secure the social diversity of countryside communities. If we do not do that then the countryside that we are trying to protect will not be one that you and I would recognise in ten or twenty years' time.

  270. Is that not going to be unsustainable? Because what you are really saying is that the expensive houses are going to be bought up by people who will commute backwards and forwards from urban areas which is clearly an unsustainable way of life, and to compensate for them buying up those houses you are actually going to put in a few affordable houses expanding the communities. Is that not really very unsatisfactory?
  (Mr Wakeford) I think there are some really quite fundamental choices open to us, but I would track it back much further to the creation of households. The fact is that something like—if we are following current trends—30,000 new households a year are coming out of rural communities. If you do not provide new housing for those communities whether in the affordable or the market sector then they are being forced to go and move to towns. Towns themselves are not without their problems. At the same time, rural communities are faced with this rural migration from towns which is increasing pressure on the housing. I think that we could do a lot more to build housing in an environmentally acceptable way in rural communities and sustain the countryside in the true sense of sustainable development, but we actually have to acknowledge that as a nation what we are doing is gaining more and more households. If we are going to house those people, we need more and more houses. We need them in the countryside, in the towns and villages in the countryside, as much as we need them in urban areas.

Ms King

  271. I wonder if you could tell us if you have any practical solutions to the affordable housing crisis and how you think the funds that may become available could best be spent.
  (Mr Wakeford) Perhaps I could ask Jo to talk a little bit about some of our experience with Rural Housing Enablers who are actually on the ground tackling the practical problems, and to touch on the Sites for Social Diversity proposals that we have put forward because we are putting forward proposals, but we need them to be taken on board and driven home.
  (Ms Lavis) We fund, with the Housing Corporation and local authorities a series of posts called Rural Housing Enablers and they work with the communities, the local authorities, housing associations and land owners to identify what the housing needs are; to try and identify and bring forward sites and funding together. Partly in response to some of the discussion earlier, that is one of the ways we have found overcomes the NIMBY objection to sites coming forward, very much because people can see they are involved with the process and they see what comes out of it as meeting the needs of their community. What is encouraging is that in those communities where Rural Housing enablers have worked, those communities are now looking for a second phase of development because they recognise that what it is providing is the opportunity for people within their communities to stay there, to build a support network of friends and family; it enables people to work in the community sustaining rural businesses and rural economy. But the biggest obstacle that our Rural Housing enablers face is actually trying to find sites. Increasingly they are having to rely on the Rural Exception site policy which only delivers a handful of schemes—although very beneficial to those individual communities—across the country as a whole—it provides very little. So what we felt was that we needed to look at some way in which we could ensure that the land could come forward, give the confidence to the local authority that what they were allocating for would meet the housing need of that community. That it gave the community certainty to know what that land was going to be used for because that is part of the reason that you get NIMBY objections because they just do not know what is going to be on their land or back yard, and we were able to provide some certainty to the developers so that they knew what was going to be expected of them when they put in a bid for particular sites. The proposal we came up with was the Sites for Social Diversity. Basically what the policy proposes is that when a local authority is reviewing its local plan then they look at the tenure and social economic structure of the individual rural communities. But where there is a significant imbalance compared with the distribution for the region or the country and they only want to allocate one site for development within that community for environmental reasons, then they can allocate it as a Site for Social Diversity policy. What is actually built on that site is determined by the local housing needs assessment, so that dictates what sort of tenure and type of housing will be provided. It is then secured, in the same way as Rural Exception site policy using section 106 agreement and the use of a registered social landlord to do the development. We feel that that it provides the transparency and certainty that is being looked for. We understand from QC's advice which we have taken that it falls within the current legal framework and within current guidance.

Mr Cummings

  272. Could this approach be applicable to all areas including towns or only smaller villages such as suggested in your evidence?
  (Ms Lavis) We believe that it is suitable for those areas where there is very high pressure of demand for housing, but it is actually only suitable for those communities where one development site would come forward because at the moment it is not legally possible for plans to distinguish between two different types of housing use.

  273. How would this be achieved? How are these sites released in those areas?
  (Ms Lavis) They would be allocated in the same way as a housing site is currently allocated within a local plan. One of the questions which has been raised is whether or not land owners would be willing to bring forward their sites. We are aware of that and are looking at whether there is a possibility of doing something with the tax system to give a tax break or some incentive to land owners to bring it forward, but we also have some advice which has been put together for us which actually shows there is a significant return for the land owner if the site can be released at a cost which is more than an Exception site value but lower than an open market value, but still comes within the cost limits of the Housing Corporation.

  274. How has that been received by the Ministry? The Department?
  (Ms Lavis) We put the proposal in front of the Department at its very early stages. In fact its title is, I am afraid, their responsibility, quite long winded as it is. They certainly encouraged us to pursue it. In fact, in the Planning Obligation Consultation Paper they have asked for responses to whether local authorities should be able to allocate sites for affordable housing where there is demonstrable need and it would help the inclusivity of those communities. In principle it is very, very close to what we were proposing so we feel it has their support.

  275. In your evidence you state that you prefer Sites for Social Diversity to the system of tariffs. What is wrong with the proposal for tariffs? What do you object to?
  (Ms Lavis) We have two concerns about tariffs. The first is that if there is a high housing need within an area and a local authority therefore decide that they need a high tariff to cover the amount of affordable housing that is needed, there is every possibility that the developer will think they do not actually want to do this, they cannot afford to do it so they will not go ahead with the development. This would actually exacerbate the problem; no houses at all.

  276. Do you have any examples of where this has actually occurred?
  (Ms Lavis) No because obviously the tariff system is not in.

  277. No, but do you have anything comparable with which to compare it?
  (Mr Wakeford) Would you like me to bring in an overseas example because in New Jersey, in the United States, following a judgment in the courts there was a requirement for a slice of housing to be brought in so that every time you built market housing you built affordable housing alongside. As the housing market went up and down the production of affordable housing went up and down with that housing market and not with the needs in society. What is more, where the house builders wanted to build the affordable housing was not actually where the affordable housing needs were. So they had a sort of broad formula type approach which looked fine in economic theory, but when it came to practicalities it was not working well on the ground.

  278. Could you explain to the Committee the Rural Exceptions policy?
  (Mr Wakeford) I call this non planning or anti planning. The way it works is that a local authority provides for a majority of its housing in its local plan on sites mainly in market towns and bigger places, but it recognises in its mind that there is a need for housing for less well off people in villages. Instead of actually putting anything on the plan to show that housing will be built in villages it does nothing. So the plan shows no development. If you show no development on the plan then you turn round and you say "But we would still permit some development there if it was rural affordable housing. But you would not have any permission for anything else." What you can then do is to bring forward affordable housing without having to pay the full market price for land. It seems to us to be a device which is not welcome in many communities because the communities look at the plan to see how that community is going to develop, see that the envelope of the village is set and then they discover that despite what it says on the plan about the future of that place some new housing is going to be built and it is not shown on the plan. Our approach in the proposals that are attached to our evidence is about a much more honest approach where you say, "Yes, communities do need this housing; we will put it in the plan. We will designate these areas so that they are there to achieve social diversity policy objectives" and that can be run through the planning system.

  279. You are very sceptical in the belief of how much that will produce.
  (Mr Wakeford) It certainly does not produce anywhere near as many units as are needed and the way it works requires a great deal of what you might call administrative overheads through people like Rural Housing Enablers.

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