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Question agreed to.



27 Oct 2005 : Column 507


Council Tax

2.35 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I present a petition that is one of a series instigated by the IsitFair campaign about council tax, signed by 422 people from the Stafford constituency.

The petitioners request

To lie upon the Table.

27 Oct 2005 : Column 508

Affordable Housing (Cumbria)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

2.36 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the subject of affordable housing in Cumbria. My constituents in Westmorland and Lonsdale have average incomes of around £16,000 per annum, with average house prices at about £200,000. According to the Government's assessment of an affordable home—a home valued at three and a half times one's income—my constituents would need to earn more than three times the local average in order to own a home in their area.

For most local people in south Cumbria, buying a home is simply out of the question, but now a decent rented home is getting beyond the reach of most people. Last year, the local authority sold over 250 council properties, and at the same time roughly 130 new social houses for rent were made available by local housing associations. That is a net loss of 120 social houses   during the last 12 months, and that is the lowest net loss for many years, partly because the council is simply running out of council houses to sell.

People who, had they been first-time buyers a decade ago, would have been able to afford a mortgage for a starter home, have absolutely no chance of doing so now. Those people do one of two things: they either leave the area or they enter the rented market, both of which have seriously damaging effects on our local communities. South lakeland currently loses 27 per cent. of its young people, never to return. Not only is that heart-breaking for local families, it is also disastrous for the economy and for society, stripping our towns and villages of talent and energy, reducing the skills base, reducing the birth rate, leading to falling school rolls and leaching the lifeblood from our communities.

Those who stay and decide to rent find themselves joining a pressurised market. As the pressure on the market and the private rented sector grows, rents go up, pushing many more families into the social rented sector. But the amount of social housing is shrinking each year and the consequences of that are appalling. Families who, a decade ago, would have qualified comfortably for a council or housing association property are now dumped in substandard or inappropriate accommodation, waiting on a housing list for an eternity. In Kendal, the council is forced to offer young families hostel accommodation for months on end because there are simply no homes available.

The human misery caused by this situation is immense. The impact on the physical and mental health of people caught in the trap is vast, and the effect on the children involved is unacceptable in any civilised society, and yet, of the 42,000 properties in my constituency, roughly 7,000 are not lived in. Some of those are holiday lets, which provide a valuable tourist income to our area, but most are second homes and are left vacant for much of the year.

Excessive second home ownership pushes house prices even further beyond the means of local people and removes homes that would otherwise be, and indeed once were, in the hands of local families. The impact on
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our community of excessive second home ownership is crippling, because the loss of properties to the second home sector threatens the survival of local businesses, schools and public transport, as well as other services. Villages such as Satterthwaite and Lowick in my constituency have lost, or are soon to lose, their local schools because the houses that used to send children to those schools now stand empty for much of the year. Villages such as Bouth have lost their post office and others, such as Crosthwaite, face the same fate because the houses no longer contain local consumers.

I do not want to focus any blame on people who have second homes, and I would not want to upset Labour Members, many of whom no doubt have second homes. I merely make observations about my constituency, where I have my home and where my constituents struggle in the face of a lopsided and increasingly inaccessible housing market. Local people do not resent second home owners; indeed, many who are classified as such are people who have purchased a home in my constituency with the intention of moving to it full-time once they retire. Those people will become fully fledged and wholehearted members of the community in time. I   encourage them to hurry up and join us as quickly as possible, because their local post office, church and bus service need them.

My constituency is among the most picturesque in England, and one might say, "If you can afford to have a home there, why shouldn't you?" The answer is simple. We welcome people to Cumbria, including those who have second homes. I have no desire to demonise those people at all, but I am not a supporter of the unfettered free market; neither, I suspect, is the Minister.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that my local authority area, Ceredigion, is the least affordable in Wales in which to buy a home, and that comparisons between Cumbria and Ceredigion are marked, with the lowest average wages in Wales coupled with the highest prices?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has referred to Cumbria, but this debate is about affordable housing in Cumbria, not in Wales.

Tim Farron: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that affordable housing is a problem throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. We fear that some of the concerns in rural areas across the United Kingdom, especially in Cumbria, are being overlooked by the Government in their attempt to tackle the issue of affordable housing.

Adam Smith may have been a Liberal, but he was nevertheless wrong in this respect: no invisible hand is in evidence to correct the faults in this market—it is up to society to employ its visible hand to correct imbalances, to protect true freedom, and to ensure fairness.

The Minister may be interested to hear that in the past six months I have had two letters from second home owners ticking me off for my stance on this issue—I do not think that either was from the Minister's neighbour, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton
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(Mr. Meacher). I said to them, and would say to any second home owner, that I fully recognise the liberty to purchase a second home, but respectfully point out that the right to have a decent first home is a much more important liberty.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the proposed Government regulations on self-invested personal pensions, which are due to come into force on 1 April next year, will have a dramatic impact on the demand for second homes in Cumbria and in my constituency?

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