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19 Nov 2002 : Column 600—continued

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): This has been an important Queen's Speech, heralding some tremendous reforms and a huge amount of work over the next parliamentary year. I shall concentrate on an element of housing—park homes—and regional government, which are of great significance to the people of Lancaster and Wyre.

Park homes are often described as caravans, and the legislation covering them consists of various Caravan Acts and the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Unfortunately, that Act is full of holes and leaves people—often elderly people—living in rural areas extremely vulnerable to the attentions of rogue landlords. The draft housing Bill provides an opportunity to introduce a new chapter on park homes, which comes about because, over the past four years, the Government have wisely engaged in a complex review process, in partnership with the responsible elements of what should be an excellent industry and representatives of the three national park homes organisations.

I do not have time to deal with all the difficulties posed by park homes, but if we use the opportunities that the draft housing Bill gives us and the knowledge gained from that complex and subtle review process over the past few years, we have a tremendous chance to reform the law and to introduce fit-person criteria for the people who own and run residential parks.

We have the opportunity to introduce sellers packs into transactions that often do not even involve solicitors. We have the opportunity for local authorities to enforce the improvement of standards, better registration and inspection, to ensure that residents are protected and empowered. The important element of affordable housing which is adaptable, light and modern can grow further and become a more important part of housing provision, particularly in rural areas. Residents on parks will be protected and responsible park owners as part of a responsible industry will be allowed to flourish. We are talking about people who, if they are not already seriously depressed by criminal and rogue elements in the park homes industry, now live in fear of some rogue's taking over the running of their park, and of losing any right that they have to live in peace and comfort—often in the last home that they intend to inhabit. Dealing with the problem should be a priority for a Government who I believe are committed to traditional values in a modern setting.

I want to talk about regional assemblies and, in particular, about the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I have been amazed at some of the rhetoric I have heard this evening. My constituency has benefited enormously from the influence of the North West development agency. It contains Lancaster university, a world-class university and a centre for high-tech research, management skills and applied sciences. Thanks to investment from the Government, from Europe but also from the development agency, over the next 20 months or so the city will have an opportunity to build a world-class business centre based on high-tech research and the skills provided by the university.

The constituency also contains a large rural area, and the development agency is making huge efforts to help rural regeneration. We are seeing the development of a

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XMade in Lancashire" label. We are seeing proposals for investment in and redevelopment of market towns. We are seeing a whole agenda relating to Don Curry's report and his commission on food and farming, the Government's investment in farming, diversification, rural areas, and opportunities for parish councils to develop transport programmes and engage in major planning—huge opportunities, indeed, for rural areas, through education, diversification and co-operation, to reconstruct their economies. It is essential for local people to have a democratic say in the way things operate at regional level.

We need a certain sort of regional government. Various spectres have been unleashed on us tonight, but what we need is regional government that is lean and fit and uses all modern means of communication. We need regional government that is rooted in the history of the areas that it governs. Members have referred to county councils that have existed in the same form since 1974. The historic city of Lancaster, the ancient county town of the old county of Lancashire which stretched from Barrow to Manchester and from Manchester to Liverpool, has real historic resonance. We need a regional assembly that will engage with major stakeholders, and will identify—and enable people to identify—with the whole region. We need regional government that relates to rural areas, urban areas and the vast range of people who live in the north-west. Above all, we need regional government because we need democratic control of the enormous powers that now exist at regional level. Anyone who denies that has given up.

Such a measure will give us the opportunity to reform local government. I do not want the reform to extend just to unitary authorities, although I want to see an end to county councils, which have served their purpose. I want the flexibilities that this Government have introduced through health, social care and education legislation to work to the benefit of people. I want the development of trusts and I want local government to be at the heart of effective partnerships to improve the lives of people in the Lancaster and Wyre constituency.

9.20 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): In the year and a half or so since I came to this place, the issue of housing has probably made up the biggest part of my postbag. There is a particular problem with second homes in North Norfolk. Some 10 per cent. of housing stock there is second homes. That has a considerable effect, particularly on some of the coastal communities. About 50 per cent. of the core of some villages is made up of second homes. Elsewhere, they make up less of the village, but the impact that they have on the viability of schools, on local transport, on shops and on post offices is considerable.

The 50 per cent. discount on council tax for second homes should never have been part of the council tax regime. The fact that it has remained for so long is a scandal. Since the council tax was introduced, about #10 million to #15 million has been lost to North Norfolk as a result of that discount. A regressive tax that is regarded by many people as unfair seems even worse when they look at what they are getting for their services and see people who predominantly have higher incomes paying only 50 per cent. of the rate because they own a second home. There is massive resentment there.

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I welcome the Government's announcement that councils will be able to charge a lower discount on the council tax, but I strongly take the view that it should have been abolished in its entirety, or at least that councils should have had the ability to charge the full council tax. The notes to editors on the Deputy Prime Minister's press release say:

The rest of us do not get an incentive to comply with our legal liabilities in terms of council tax or any other tax that we have to pay, so why is it that second home owners need that incentive to comply with the law? The Government should have abolished the discount in its entirety, so that more money could be raised for affordable housing and other local services. If it were abolished completely, North Norfolk would get an extra #1.5 million. We will lose #300,000 of that extra sum because of the 10 per cent. minimum discount. That seems a great wasted opportunity.

I welcome the fact that the Government have made it clear that the money will be available locally for local councils to spend as they see fit. That is good news, but my concern is that it comes at the same time as the Government are reviewing the way in which they allocate central Government money to local authorities. The great fear is that local authorities will gain the extra money from the reduced discount in second homes, but then lose out on a reallocation of resources away from rural areas to cities. So we have to watch carefully that that is real extra money. It is desperately needed, particularly for the provision of more affordable homes in North Norfolk.

I add one point on a planning issue. There is a case for at least considering requiring people in these hot spots, in the villages where about 50 per cent. of the houses are second homes, to apply for planning permission to change the use of a property from a permanent home to a second home. Providing some local democratic control over what happens to those villages should at least be considered.

I support the right to buy, which has done considerable good in terms of creating mixed-tenure communities and avoiding the development of ghettoes of entirely owner-occupied, or entirely council-owned, properties. I have a personal concern about the size of the discount, particularly in high-value areas, where individuals can gain an absolute bonanza through, in effect, the transfer to them of public money.

The biggest concern of all relates to the failure over many years to replace lost stock. The Conservative proposal to extend the right to buy to housing associations will simply exacerbate the problem. The Thatcher Government did not countenance it, yet now the Conservatives are proposing it. There are Conservatives up and down the land involved in housing policy who realise the stupidity of this plan, and its likely effect on an already developing crisis, but what have the Government done about the right to buy?

In September, the Deputy Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that the Government will act. He recognised that, in some areas, the right to buy is denuding local stock, and that there simply are not enough homes for local people. However,

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his statement—it has yet to be backed up by action—resulted in people across the country getting in their applications, so that they can buy their property before it is too late. In other words, it has actually exacerbated the problem. I have checked the situation in Norfolk. In one district, there have been more applications in the seven months of this financial year than in the whole of last year. In another, there were 158 applications last year, but 226 this year. That is fine—

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