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6.30 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): This Bill is very interesting. The Minister has not referred to national parks, but I want to make a special plea to the right hon. Gentleman because Exmoor national park is in my constituency and we have a problem there with housing of any type.

The Government are well aware that national parks are areas of outstanding national beauty, but we have to be able to create homes for people who want to stay in

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the area in which they were born, and encourage people to come in to do jobs that need to be done, mainly in Exmoor, in tourism and to do with the contentious issue of hunting. The national parks, including Exmoor national park, have done extremely well over many years in creating houses, but, for several reasons, have found it harder and harder to get landlords, tenants or people to buy. The problem is compounded by the fact that West Somerset district council, which is the smallest district council in the United Kingdom, has a total budget of just over £4 million to do everything it has to do and the housing stock, for historical reasons, has never been large. We have an added complication. Most of the area is one of outstanding natural beauty, and what is not, happens to be flood plain, so the Minister can understand that it has been very difficult to build amount of housing that we require.

Over the past few years, the problem of second homes has grown and grown, but I accept that it has now been partly resolved. Many farms that used to be run by family owner-occupiers over many generations do not exist any more simply because people have sold them, dare I say it, to people who tend to live in the metropolis of London or some of the other conurbations. Those people have moved down and turned the houses into holiday cottages, not for rent to local people but for rent to people who want to enjoy the delights of Exmoor—something that I cannot complain about as it brings in income that we require.

That process has meant, however, that it has become more and more difficult for us to buy land at a price at which we can build affordable houses on it. It is a Catch-22 situation. We cannot get the asset that we require to build housing for rent at a sensible rate to the people who need it most—local people who want to stay in Exmoor.

The head teacher of my local college told me that the top 15 per cent. of its students—the ones the college wants to keep in the area—do not stay, their main reason being that they cannot find houses to buy at the bottom rung of the ladder because of the price. I urge the Minister to look at this matter. Areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, parts of Scotland and probably parts of Wales could be given some dispensation to build houses that would stay in public ownership no matter what and were used for the long-term social benefit of people who were trying to climb the housing ladder but had no collateral to do so.

Interestingly enough, the Government were very successful—I do not know which Government it was; I suspect it was the 1945 Government or just after—in doing that through farms. They had a very good sale and leaseback scheme.

Mr. Dawson: A Labour Government.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: It may well have been, but that scheme was successful. I urge the Minister to look at that again, because we cannot encourage people to stay in areas where they cannot afford to live. That problem is getting worse.

I make another plea. The other end of my constituency has an industrial town—unusual for a Tory, one might say—but three sides of it are surrounded by flood plains. At the moment we are

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unable to build social housing because of the pressure on the land that we are allowed to build on. In the old days, as the Minister is aware, it was easy to build on flood-plains, because people did not really get any permission and were able to do as they required. Rightly, the Government have introduced through the Environment Agency strict and rigorously controlled rules on building on flood plains but that has meant that we have lost a lot of land that was earmarked for building. I now have land in my constituency, as I am sure other hon. Members have, that cannot be built on because one cannot get insurance for the houses. That has created pressure on social housing.

Recently, we have had a new bypass put in, which has led to the creation of 900 extra homes. If the Minister asks how many of those are social, the answer is none. The cost of the land has risen to an extent that it is very difficult for us to buy the land and the council has none. Private landlords in my area of Somerset are determined to build private houses to be able to make, dare I say it, a profit. I should not complain about that as a Tory.

Mr. Love: In most other parts of the country, the local or regional planning authority would assume that, with a development of over 15 dwellings, a certain proportion—25 per cent. in some areas, 50 per cent. in high-cost areas such as London—would be social housing. What is happening in the hon. Gentleman's local authority area?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman brought that up. It was remiss of me not to do so. That is an area where there was a failing—there is no doubt about it—but the district council had a problem. It was trying to encourage people to come in. We are not a natural industrial town—we are in the middle of the countryside. Indeed, ours is the furthest west industrial town in Britain. We have had to create many more expensive houses to bring in the people we need to work in the cellophane industry, a growth industry, but the hon. Gentleman's point was well made. It has been addressed but it is a chicken and egg situation. If we create the social housing, we do not have the infrastructure in either of our district councils to be able to look after people efficiently. That is a failing not only of this Government but of successive Governments over many years. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have brought that up.

In the longer term, we are going to find it more and more difficult to build houses that will be socially acceptable. I have been into many houses that are in multiple occupancy. That matter was also brought up by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), a former junior Minister. Many of those dwellings are not up to standard.When I told my district council that there was a debate on such accommodation today, it talked about the cost of bringing those homes up to standard. We have two housing associations to look after the stock and they do so well in most cases but the cost is enormous. That goes back many years and we are finding it harder and harder to keep up with the repair rate because of social changes, changes in legislation, certain changes from Europe and other things.

My final plea to the Minister is on park homes. I have a lot in my constituency. My predecessor, Lord King, over his entire tenure as the Member for Bridgwater,

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from 1970 to the last election, had park home problems. I continue to have them. This Bill without any shadow of a doubt will help, but I wonder whether it will resolve the problem of unscrupulous, difficult landlords. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) eloquently put it, tenants, elderly in most cases, are finding it harder and harder to take people on. I am sure that many hon. Members have had numerous approaches by constituents who find it harder and harder to take up these issues.

My plea to the Minister is that we ensure that the Bill is as tight as possible on behalf of those people. I have had enormous problems with drainage, access, people who have been threatened, and people who have found it very difficult to live in those homes. If an elderly person's home is such a park home, they bought it in the hope that they could retire there, but they are finding it tougher and tougher to live there because of landlords who, shall we say, are draconian in pushing their rules. It is difficult to know where they will end up. I do not want to see anyone homeless; no one does. Unfortunately, we are creating that at the moment—people get scared and feel that they cannot stay in that park home estate.

Since I have been the Member for Bridgwater, I have on various occasions come across people who have been compelled to sell because they do not believe that they can guarantee their safety as they get older because of things that are not being done by landlords, or things that are being done to the detriment of that park. In Committee, the Minister should look to close any possible loopholes to help some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Mr. Dawson: I entirely support the hon. Gentleman in his concerns about park homes, on which the Bill, as it stands, does not propose any legislation. Will he support the amendments, which will be supported by both sides of the House, to bring about the changes that the Government have said they want? Does he accept that the proposals are supported not just by Members on both sides of the house, but by the industry and all the national residents' organisations?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention, with which I totally agree. Any MP with a park home in their constituency will have had such a problem, as this has been going on for generations. It cannot be right to have such a situation in this day and age and I urge the Minister to resolve it as quickly as possible. If we do not, we will let down ourselves and an enormous number of people who cannot protect themselves and need this place to ensure that their lives are happy and fruitful, as they should be.

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