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11 July 2006 : Column 385WH—continued

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Let me run through some of the ideas. First, there needs to be a better analysis of rural housing need. Our current methodology is not as robust as one might want. There needs to be a debate, starting in the locality through parish councils and in local authorities, to a regional and Government level, about how we calculate housing figures, what we really need and what the timetable is for delivering those figures.

I am particularly keen to involve regional spatial strategies in the process. The strategies of most regional planning forums are now well under way. We could consider at an early stage what provision and recommendation those spatial strategies make for rural housing. Some strategies acknowledge the need, but some do not. There are some early gains to be made in this area.

I am a great believer in planning. Planning is a Labour concept—a socialist concept—and we should aspire to a planned, spatial structure. We should not be afraid of that, despite the waves in the water at the moment. I am keen for local authorities to introduce plans for rural housing through their local development frameworks. The exceptions policy has served us well up to now, but by itself it is not sufficient. In the new local development frameworks, local authorities need to identify sites for housing. The threshold for affordable housing in new developments needs to be brought down.

We need to revise some planning policies. It is not possible at present to convert outbuildings to housing on many farms in rural areas. We need to consider that matter closely. Last week I visited Beecroft farm in Bulcote, Nottinghamshire, where there was once a big piggery where pigs were fed on swill. However, that business has gone and the buildings are decrepit and decaying. In effect, it is a brownfield site, but our current policy guidance does not allow us to convert the buildings to housing. We should revisit that guidance.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point in arguing that planning has socialist origins. Having said that, does he not agree that planning appears to be fuelled more by greed than need and that when local planning authorities pass permissions—particularly unfettered permissions for housing development in rural areas—they effectively give away lottery sums to landowners? Does he agree that we need to ensure that the planning system in rural areas should meet the need for affordable housing, not stuff the pockets of people who happen to be lucky enough to have developable sites?

Paddy Tipping: I am not always sure that greed drives the planning process—clearly, landowners want to maximise the benefit of their land—but the hon. Gentleman is right that, through their local plans, local authorities are in a position to drive affordable housing. That is the commission’s view and mine, too. I hope that the Minister will continue along that line. Planning policy guidance is already being revised. There are encouraging movements in respect of planning policy statement 3 that will help affordable housing.

I have talked about the need to know how much housing we require and to use the planning process.
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However, it is also important to retain the existing stock. One can argue for new housing, but there is a strong case to revisit the right to buy in rural areas where public housing is in low supply. I welcome the movement on staircasing in rural areas, so that shared equity can be released—that is a step in the right direction—but if we are concerned about affordable housing, we must maintain the current stock.

We need to move towards financing public housing—affordable housing—in rural areas. I am pleased that in May the Housing Corporation announced an extra £230 million to provide 6,000 new houses in rural areas between 2006 and 2008. That decision recognises that there is a problem and progress has to be made. If the commission is right that we need to create 11,000 new houses each year in rural areas, we need to revisit the allocation from the Housing Corporation and at least double it.

I know—I am sure that the Minister will tell me—that this is a matter for the spending review. We need more money for rural housing. The Government have set up a commission to recommend the way forward and the Minister has considered the commission’s proposals. I hope that colleagues throughout the Government and in the Treasury will reconsider, because given the scale of the market failure, we need to provide more public support for rural housing.

We need to do many more things. Let me canter quickly through some of the things that the commission mentioned. We must continue to look at the public ownership of land in rural areas. The Ministry of Defence and the national health service, for example, are big landowners. A review is under way, but we need to make more progress so that we can define land in public ownership for rural housing. We must secure funding for rural housing enablers, which do tremendous work in bringing together proposals throughout the country, although their funding is not secure. We need to resolve that issue.

If we are to combat the elements who do not want to see more affordable housing in rural areas, we must advance high-quality design proposals that are sensitive to the environment. We need to consider new models of delivery and ownership, such as community land trusts and land-swap levies. We must also have a sensible discussion about second homes. Some people argue strongly that second homes are the problem and getting rid of them is the solution, but that is not my perception. I accept that in parts of the countryside, particularly the south-west and the national parks, second homes are an issue. However, we are considering more systematic market failure.

I look forward to reading the Lyons report at the end of the year, because I presume that Sir Michael Lyons will comment on taxing second homes in the countryside. Second homes are a problem, but we must not be seduced into thinking that it is the major problem; the issue is much wider than that.

Andrew George: It is a major issue in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I represent. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that not only is it a problem, but it sets the tone for the market price of housing, which is way out of reach of people on the
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lowest incomes in the country, as is the case in my part of the world? Does he share my concern that in an interview in the Financial Times last week, the Minister said that the Government did not intend to follow the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s recommendation in that respect?

Paddy Tipping: I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the commission’s recommendation and I shall consider her comments closely.

I accept that second homes are raising house prices to an exceptional level in attractive parts of the countryside like the hon. Gentleman’s, but affordable housing in rural areas is a much wider problem and is not just connected with second homes.

Real leadership is necessary to deliver affordable housing in rural areas. We are not talking about concreting over the countryside. The commission’s proposals would mean that to achieve its targets in population wards of 5,000, we are talking about six houses per community. I believe that that is achievable and sustainable. We must move away from a notion of sustainability in the countryside that focuses solely on landscape and environmental issues. We want a living, changing countryside, a countryside in which investment can take place, and in which investment in new housing is investment in a new future for the countryside. We have heard talk in this Chamber today about the post office network. There are concerns about small village schools, shops, pubs and bus services in rural areas. We must move towards younger, more vibrant and more sustainable villages in our countryside.

The commission has set out an agenda. I do not want it to be an agenda for discussion; I want it to be an agenda for change. If we are serious about a living, working countryside, we must take up the commission’s challenge and make the change. I am confident that the Government, having set up the commission, will look closely at its recommendation, follow some of its policy advice and introduce tools and measures for change.

11.21 am

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing the debate, which is on an extremely important subject. The lack of affordable housing used to be called the hidden problem in rural areas. It is now much less hidden due to the efforts of the hon. Gentleman and others in this Chamber and outside it.

My constituency, rather like that of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), is a south-west constituency. According to figures just published, Torridge is the worst out of 408 English local authorities in terms of wages, and wages in West Devon are almost as bad. The published figures for Torridge and West Devon show that the average house price in Torridge is £186,000, and the average house price in West Devon is £235,000. That is 10.6 times average earnings in Torridge and 9.3 times average earnings in West Devon. No doubt the experience of many hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent rural areas is that their surgeries are filled
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increasingly with young people, families and single people who find it almost impossible to find a decent place in which to live.

That is why I welcome the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s report. I agree with much of it. I have questions about parts of it, but there is no doubt that when I began to examine this problem and spoke to the chief executives and the planning and the housing departments of the local authorities, I found that the planning system was centre stage as the main obstacle to the development that both those authorities wanted to carry out. I congratulate West Devon borough council on its pioneering approach in this area. It is doing wonderful things and has recently produced a report that prioritises affordable housing in the villages as one of its main targets and objectives. That must be a good precedent; I hope that it will be repeated.

The planning system, however, is a major problem, and I want to raise with the Minister a specific example from my constituency of a pioneering, innovative scheme, developed by the community. A village in my constituency called High Bickington, which has received some national attention lately, formed a community property trust. The Minister may be familiar with the story. The village needed a new school. The Victorian cramped conditions in which the children are taught have been obviously inadequate for a long time, but instead of deciding to address only the educational need of the village, those in the village who were concerned about their community, of whom there were many, devised a plan that would address not only the need for a new school, but community woodland, affordable housing and the important question—I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood—of design. If people are to accept the development of their villages, they must be satisfied that the design quality is high enough for them to feel easy and comfortable about the expansion in population and the expansion in building that it requires.

The community property trust in High Bickington worked for several years and many hundreds of hours—with the assistance, I must say, of some Government money—to devise a plan. It was recognised from the outset that that would not be within the local development plan. It was an innovative departure; it involved pioneering ideas. Several Ministers visited the scheme and described it as inspirational. So did the Prince of Wales. The trust’s plans for affordable housing were exceptionally good ideas. It devised a scheme whereby those whom it had identified already to occupy the affordable homes that it was building would receive back, when they handed over the tenancy to a new family, a sum of money that represented a proportion of the rent above cost that they had paid to the trust. They would pay their rent and, at the end of their tenancy, the trust would calculate how much it had cost it to maintain the building, and over and above that the departing tenants would receive a sum of money that was small but sufficient to enable them possibly to move on to a shared equity scheme or some other form of house ownership. Those ideas were immensely precious and valuable.

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The trust submitted its application to Torridge district council, but that council was obliged, because the application departed from the local plan, to pass it to the Government office for the south-west. There it languished for many months, until eventually a public inquiry was held and the planning inspector decided to recommend against it on the ground that it departed from the local plan. Imagine the disappointment of those hundreds of villagers and members of the local community who had received encouragement from the Government—indeed, a senior Minister had visited and said that the scheme was inspirational—only to be confronted with devastating failure. That is despite their having received Government money for a scheme—I must make this clear to the Minister—that would always have departed from the local plan.

This is a case, I would submit, of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing. The Minister will know that I have written to the Secretary of State, raising the case and asking for the Secretary of State’s comments. I hope that she will feel able to comment, because there are still hundreds of devastated members of the local community, who have found that when they take the initiative and show the drive and energy necessary to devise a solution, they come up against the planning system. They had identified the local families that would be involved. They had measured carefully the local need. When they take into their own hands the means by which to produce local and radical solutions to the problems that they face, they come up against the rock of bureaucracy and the planning system.

I respectfully suggest that it is vital that the planning system be the subject, from top to bottom, of a radical review as to whether it favours the development of rural affordable housing. Only if we take that concerted approach and have a radical review of the planning system in rural areas—I agree with Elinor Goodman and the commission—can we conceivably begin to address the problem that we face.

The hon. Member for Sherwood talked about the need for imagination. The other day, I was with a representative of South West Water—not a very popular company, I have to say, in the areas that I and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) represent. I was being told about a plan that South West Water had and I was shown a map. I invite the other hon. Gentlemen here from constituencies in the south-west to make an application for the same map, because it is extremely interesting. Across the map of the south-west—across Devon and Cornwall—there were literally hundreds of dots, which showed brownfield sites. They were disused water processing or other water sites. Many of them were on the edges of villages and would be ideal for the development of two or three houses. There were about 100 such sites in my constituency alone. At least some of those would present potential opportunities for the development of affordable housing.

The company was telling me that it would like to make the land available for the purposes of affordable housing. It might be difficult for it to develop it profitably and viably if it were not permitted at least one market-priced house, but it does not, as I understand it—some hon. Members may be sceptical—seek to make a substantial profit. It wants instead to cross-subsidise, by the production of, say, one market
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unit and two, three or four other affordable homes. If there are 100 such sites on the edges of villages in my constituency alone, I ask the House to reflect on what a difference they might make to the problem in my constituency and other constituencies in the south-west. As the hon. Member for Sherwood said, however, that requires will and leadership. It requires a coherent and joined-up approach, which is what currently seems to be lacking.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned farmers. There is no question that many farming families in my constituency would like to build a bungalow or put up a building for members of their own family on the farm, so as to be able to work the farm. However, the planning system makes that very difficult. The hoops that people must jump through and the hurdles that they must get over are extremely rigorous. It should not be so, particularly if they are willing to have an agricultural tie on any such building. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that barns and redundant outbuildings are also wonderful opportunities to develop affordable housing. However—and I say this merely to enter a caution—it might not be profitable to do that unless at the same time there was permission to provide perhaps one market-price unit for the purposes of cross-subsidy.

I shall conclude—I know that other hon. Members want to speak—with an appeal to the Minister. It is critical that the Government should show that what we are debating is a crucial priority within their rural housing policy. It is vital that instead of a regional spatial strategy that is always urban-focused in relation to development, we should have a specific mainstream policy that will allow villages to breathe. I know that there is concern about nimbyism. There is no doubt that people who retire to villages or come to live in them at other times feel uncomfortable about what they may see as a threat to the precious way of life in which they have invested, which was the reason they went there. It is not only retired people or those who have arrived lately who feel that way. It is precisely those concerns that can, I believe, be tackled by the concern for design that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about.

I ask the Minister seriously to consider the sort of radical reform of the planning system, or at least the kind of leadership and will, that the Affordable Rural Housing Commission has spoken about. High Bickington was a classic example of a community taking its future into its own hands. However, it was confronted by bureaucracy and astonishing Government blindness to the effects of their own policy. That policy both paid for the development of the plan and then brought about its defeat, because of the objection, which had been apparent throughout the three or more years of the scheme’s development period, that it would mean departing from the local plan. We must have greater imagination and flexibility, and I urge the Minister to take that message back. Nothing is more important in the countryside at the moment than genuinely and urgently tackling the housing problem.

11.34 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for the fact that you must listen to me again, but, as I said in the debate on post offices and
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community services, the debates this morning have a unified theme. They are not only about how we deliver services but about how people can live in the countryside and use them.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for securing a debate on this issue now, and for explaining it so carefully and clearly, with numbers that even I can understand, to show the depth of the current crisis and why we must do something about it. I am pleased to follow the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), if for no other reason than that the Minister may hear his plaintive cry for the High Bickington scheme. It is a brilliant scheme and one that needs to be moved forward. I know that planning rules exist, but I have always believed that rules are there to be broken if that would lead to a better outcome; we sometimes have a negative way of turning things down for reasons that are difficult to understand.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood would expect me to say, one of the pleas that needs to be made is for progress with the idea of community land trusts, which feature prominently in the report. I hope that the Government will sign up to the report lock, stock and barrel. It is really very good and well written, and it is possible to read it and think, “This makes sense.” Nothing less is to be expected from a body chaired by Elinor Goodman, the political journalist. If she cannot put the information across, no one can. However, its quality is due also to other members of the commission, including our late lamented colleague Peter Bradley, and Mark Shucksmith, who probably understands more about rural communities than most of us would ever claim to. There are people of real importance involved, and I hope that the Minister is presently not just dwelling on the report but considering the points for action.

The report is a road map that will take us forward. It contains ideas whose time has come, among which are community land trusts. I shall quickly plug the Cashes Green scheme in my community, which receives a mention in the report. It is described as a model, but things seem to be somewhat more complicated than they might. We need to unravel the complexities and recognise that such schemes are a way to move forward in rural communities such as High Bickington. The problem is often about locking the land away. If it is possible to control the land, the equity value that can be taken from it, and which people can share in, provides people with a reward. The important things are the land, its ownership, and communalising that.

I am not here to have a dig at the Minister, but perhaps we can clear some of the history of local authority ownership of housing out the way. The Government have a brilliant record on the decent homes standard. We do not congratulate ourselves enough, but we are driving that forward and it is almost certain that we shall reach our target by 2010. I feel slightly argumentative about who should own the property in question, but I do not want to get bogged down in that. The most important thing is to recognise that social ownership of housing is a key factor.

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