Previous Section Index Home Page

11 July 2006 : Column 392WH—continued

The Minister was at a seminar that I attended a couple of weeks ago. It was interesting, because we examined some of the complexities in models of social ownership across the domain, but particularly in rural
11 July 2006 : Column 393WH
areas. I made the point that local authorities have a key role to play and that leadership is sometimes lacking. It is too easy to abdicate responsibility and blame the planning process. I expect local authorities to be determined, and to make it clear that they will keep coming back until they deliver the schemes in villages and market towns as well as urban areas. That is their responsibility and what they are elected to do. They must sometimes take on the nimbies. This is about pointing out to people—this is linked to the previous debate—that there will be no services in rural Britain unless people of different ages, classes and, dare I say it, ethnic backgrounds move in to regenerate those communities. That will have to happen and will have to be encouraged.

I have two more points to make; I know that other hon. Members want to contribute. I hope that we can agree across the parties that the commission is brilliant and is worthy of full support, and that this is simply a question of pushing the Government even further in trying to get more resources going in faster.

I was interested to receive a paper from Shelter on this matter. Too often, we think of homelessness as an urban and city problem. Purely by chance, I was talking to a couple of people from a Christian group in Stroud called Marah, which was set up four or five years ago. Its initial aim was simply to offer a warm meal in the day, and it now operates on at least three days a week, providing meals for people who need them. One would think that we were talking about two or three people, but the group regularly feeds 70 people, 50 of whom it believes to be genuinely homeless, although not necessarily on the street. In rural areas there can be a lot of sofa surfing and people are often able to find residences for a while. Many such people have dependency problems with alcohol and drugs and believe that they are forgotten. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that they are. Inevitably, we are talking about people who can speak for themselves and aspire to some form of ownership or look to get some form of social rent, but let us remember that there are people below that level in rural areas—as you well know, Mrs. Humble—as well as in more urban settings.

My next point is, perhaps, sometimes forgotten. One of the key reasons for providing accommodation in rural areas is because a lot of jobs are being created in such areas at the moment, but that cannot work if there is no housing for people to live and work there. This is about squaring a circle: we must be cleverer in market towns and villages. We must recognise that if we are to provide for our older people, we need the people who can provide such care to live and work locally, or that will not happen. In the Cotswolds, and coming into my constituency, there is a care problem. People simply are not able to live and work there because they cannot afford to travel from Gloucester or Cheltenham. That is a real problem.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. In urban areas, we face demand pressures from people who are coming from the rural hinterland because they cannot afford to live in the market towns and villages. Indeed, they are the very people who we need to take
11 July 2006 : Column 394WH
up the employment that is now in those areas. In Plymouth, we now have the third-highest-rising house prices in the country, and that is partly because of the pressure on our young people to leave towns and villages and go to urban areas where they can afford housing.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, because I have always believed that rural and urban problems are not separate, but interlinked. Problems in different areas may have different gradations and stresses, but they are essentially the same problems.

We should not isolate housing from either service provision, which depends on people coming and enhancing vibrancy in communities, or employment. It is a myth that people want to live in rural areas and commute miles and miles. If they do, they are wrong, and they may have to take slightly less well-paid jobs so that their quality of life will improve, which is, of course, why they moved to a rural area in the first place. The sustainability which is so vital, and for which we must all change our lifestyles, can be achieved only if people recognise that they have to make some sacrifices. If they want to live in those communities, they must work more locally. The good news is that, with the rolling out of the internet, plenty of jobs are being created in the service sector in rural areas; we simply need the houses there for people to live in so that they can do those jobs.

11.45 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It is, as ever, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who speaks with great articulacy on issues concerning rural communities, as well as international issues. He is certainly known as a rural champion in the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on having secured this important debate and on having set out so accurately the issues before us today. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to his points, and will therefore do my best to keep my remarks as brief as possible to allow the winding-up speakers to give the Minister as long as possible to address the relevant issues.

I congratulate also the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) on his speech. We are relatively near neighbours, although he represents an English seat and I a Cornish one. Our constituencies are not many miles apart, and we therefore share a geographical connection. Our constituencies are both affected by many of the same issues.

I return to a point that I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Sherwood. The Government’s figures on second home ownership clearly show that Cornwall has by far the highest level, proportionately, of second homes anywhere in the country, followed by Cumbria, Dorset, Norfolk, Devon and East Sussex. This is not simply about the politics of envy. I still count among my friends many people who own second homes in my constituency, despite all that I say about the impact that they have on the local community. This is a question of the practical management of the existing housing stock and the impact that it has on local people.

11 July 2006 : Column 395WH

Given the way in which the housing market works in areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, it is almost as though local people—Cornish folk—do not have any right to live there. I can speak only about my area, although I know a little about the housing market in other parts of the country, having worked as a quasi-rural enabler in Nottinghamshire, Devon and elsewhere. The only options available to local people are to leave the area or live on low-cost reservations. Surely that is not the way forward if we are to have a housing supply that provides any sort of equity for the community who have been living there.

We know that the market is dysfunctional and that house prices are high, having doubled in the past five years in Cornwall. Figures on this are regularly trotted out, and I could trot out more, but I will not, which show clearly that the bottom rung of the housing ladder is now well beyond the reach of local people. Last year, I undertook a survey of local estate agents, which showed that twice as many properties in my constituency were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. I was surprised that any properties had been sold to first-time buyers, because I could not believe that any properties in my constituency were any longer affordable to local people. They must have benefited from the recent loss of an aunt or other rich relative. It is certainly not possible, on local wages, to get on to even the bottom rung of the housing ladder.

In addition, the public rented sector is extremely small; it is well below 10 per cent. of the housing stock, compared with 15, 16 or 20 per cent. in many urban areas. The private rented sector is smaller still. In many urban areas, such as London, the private rented sector might be expensive, but it is relatively healthy. The rents chargeable on private rented properties in my area are well in excess of anything that the housing benefit system is prepared to offer. Local reference rents are entirely unrealistic, compared with what local people are charged in the market. As a result, the situation is extremely difficult.

The hon. Member for Stroud referred to the problem of homelessness, but where does the problem go? It does not go on to the streets, but into quarries, caravans at the backs of farms, garages and garden sheds on the Isles of Scilly. People do not sleep on park benches quite so much but they do live in lichgates outside churches and elsewhere. Yesterday, in the Salvation Army hall in Penzance, I was a panel member at a Cornwall independent poverty forum hearing, which was organised by the diocese of Truro. Local young single men told us about people who were earning a living, but who were unable to afford even to rent a flat. We are talking not about people who are unemployed, but about people who are actually earning and who cannot find a place to live. That is happening in west Cornwall and, indeed, on the Isles of Scilly. That is the serious nature of the problem that we face.

Of course, simply building homes is not the answer. People talk rather blithely about the Kate Barker report and about the thousands of houses that are needed to meet housing need in rural areas, but that is a simplistic response, which will not address the problem. Over the past 30 years, Cornwall has had one of the fastest growing populations in the country, as well as the number of houses that have been built as a
11 July 2006 : Column 396WH
proportion of the overall housing supply. However, it has one of the worst housing problems—if not the worst housing problem—in the country, so simply building houses is not the answer.

Although I think that the planning system was set up with entirely honourable intentions, it deals, sadly, only with the supply side of the demand/supply equation, as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Sherwood. It must be recognised that it is creating scarcity on the supply side, which affects the market value of the land on which it allows people to build. Sadly, human frailties being what they are, that means that the system is fuelled by greed, rather than need. Landowners go to extreme lengths to persuade the local planning committee that they must have permission to build on their land. They know that getting that permission will turn one acre of agricultural land, which might be worth about £3,000, into something that could be worth £500,000 or more. Planning committees are, in effect, writing cheques for lottery sums for landowners, and we end up with people not having to work terribly hard to gain a great deal of income.

What does that do for local housing need? The answer is absolutely nothing if there is no affordable element. Even if one uses the planning gain approach, which I describe as the planning bribe approach, and builds some affordable housing, that still multiplies the price of the land to a large extent. We must therefore address the need to construct a new rung on the housing ladder. The intermediate market is not there and it needs to be constructed. Shared equity, mutual housing and other forms of property semi-ownership clearly need to be created.

In an interview in the Financial Times on 3 July—I think that the Minister knows my views about it—she said that second home ownership was

Well, it is in an area such as mine and in many other parts of the country. It might not be a significant factor affecting affordability throughout the country, but in areas where it is an issue, it is very significant; it sets the tone for the market price and has a tremendous impact.

Alison Seabeck: On the issue of second homes, the commission discussed the option of tighter fiscal controls, and many contributors felt that higher taxes on second homes and holiday lets might be the way to go. Does the hon. Gentleman have a view on that?

Andrew George: There are only two ways to go. One is to make second home ownership fiscally less attractive. The Liberal Democrat tax commission has made it publicly known that we are looking at adding further taxes to capital gains tax to discourage second home ownership in certain circumstances. The other way is through the planning system. The knotty problem has always been how to define second homes, and I think that it can be defined through the taxation system. Once we agree on the mechanism that we use to define it, we can describe second home ownership as a separate and quite distinct use from permanent occupation. Under the use classes order, such use would be subject to a planning application that gave the local authority the opportunity to constrain the
11 July 2006 : Column 397WH
number or proportion of second and holiday homes in communities where the scarcity of properties had caused housing problems.

There are therefore two approaches to addressing the issue of affordability. I should say in parenthesis that my comments on second home ownership and planning should apply only to the lifetime of the occupancy; otherwise, we would have a stupid situation, in which we would all be applying to change our properties from first to second home use because of the premium market value that would apply to the property after the change.

My final point relates to the intermediate market. Clearly, that is the direction in which Government policy needs to go in rural areas where the mismatch between very low earnings and very high house prices is creating such tremendous problems. Although this sounds counterintuitive, one of the best ways to make progress would be to start by saying that there will be no further development in rural areas, but that, as an exception, we will use planning policy statement 3 to constrain land prices. Land prices are the big constraint on achieving any sort of affordable housing.

11.59 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I should like to echo the sentiments of other hon. Members in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) for securing this debate, which is particularly important and timely, given that the Affordable Rural Housing Commission report, to which he and other hon. Members referred, was published some weeks ago, and we are now moving towards the recess, so hon. Members will have a valuable chance to comment on it and seek indications from the Minister as to how the Government intend to respond.

The hon. Gentleman gave a clear indication of the size and nature of the problem that is facing communities in rural areas. The housing dimension interacts with other problems in rural areas where, in the past, poverty has been concealed. The report by the Commission for Rural Communities highlights the fact that one in five people in rural areas is living in poverty, and seeks to show that these issues are interrelated and that the unaffordability of housing has a great impact on people’s ability to exist on the income that they receive.

In many cases, the examples of poverty do not show up because they are in small pockets in what would seem to be wealthier communities. That reflects the need for housing. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are not talking about huge developments in villages; we are talking about the need for one or two, or perhaps five to 10, houses in small villages and the fact that they would have a huge impact in tackling the problem of unaffordability.

The problem is getting worse in that the disparity between incomes and house prices is growing. The nature of the right to buy has meant that many villages now do not have any, or have very few, homes that are still available in the conventional social rented sector. People are forced either into staying on longer with
11 July 2006 : Column 398WH
extended family, if they still have family in those communities, or into relocating to other parts of the country or to urban areas, as we heard in the contribution from the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the intervention by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck).

The consequences of the shortage of affordable housing in rural areas include overcrowding, where young adults, young couples and so on are forced to stay on longer in the family home. That can have health implications. I have seen in my surgery, as other hon. Members will have in theirs, the genuine anguish that exists in families and the impact on children who are growing up in inadequate housing. There can be problems whereby relationships then break up because they cannot cope with the strain. I saw a recent example where the number of children in a family was not quite enough to secure a banding that would have allowed the local authority to prioritise this particular application under the homefinder system and choice-based letting. The pressure of the circumstances in which that family was living was great. The couple broke up and a new dimension was added to the problems that they were experiencing.

The issue has effects not just on people as individuals and as families, but on the rural economy. If people cannot afford to live in rural areas but they still work there, they need to travel back into those areas, as the hon. Member for Stroud pointed out. We hear about sustainable development being that in the larger towns and on their edges, but that is not the case, because people are being forced to commute, almost invariably by car, back into the rural areas, and that has an effect.

The issue has an effect on the rural economy in terms of local shops and businesses. If younger families are not able to exist and to live in rural areas, those business will be affected. In my constituency and those of many other hon. Members in rural areas, small schools are a valuable part of village life. They, too, are under threat. We are now entering a period in which the change in the demographics might mean that a number of small schools will face problems. That can only be exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing in rural areas.

The break-up of extended families undermines the social network that exists to ensure that where problems are experienced relatives are on hand to lend a helping hand. In effect, some rural villages, particularly in the south-east, are becoming dormitories and commuter villages.

As with all problems of this nature, the causes are complex; they are never straightforward. It is clear that one dimension is the lack of supply. We need to build more. The report that I mentioned discusses—Shelter has supported this, as we have heard—the need for about 11,000 affordable homes a year to start to meet the need. I understand that the Housing Corporation has set aside the funding for about 3,000, so there is a huge gap to be made up.

We also need to examine the issue of planning. The contribution from the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) was timely, and he gave a heartbreaking example of how a community’s hopes had been raised, people had been invited to participate in coming up with innovative solutions and
11 July 2006 : Column 399WH
then the existing system had failed them at a crucial juncture. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on the issues he raised.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the planning issue derives from a lack of flexibility for local communities to identify their own particular problems and to find their own solutions? Does he agree that the Sustainable Communities Bill, which has the support of more than half the House in an early-day motion, might be one mechanism to allow local communities to identify their own problems and solutions, and to get Government support to help them overcome those problems? We could overcome the problem of the unintended consequences of national policy on the local community.

Mr. Rogerson: I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution and pay tribute to her work in support of the Sustainable Communities Bill. I am a signatory to that early-day motion and have spoken at a public meeting in my constituency—I know other hon. Members will have done the same in their constituencies—in support of the Bill’s concept. The Bill will make a valuable contribution to allowing local communities to take control of these issues, come up with innovative solutions and, hopefully, put them into practice; unfortunately, I have not been able to do so thus far.

There are also problems in respect of the new regional spatial strategy, as the hon. Member for Sherwood pointed out. The pressure to examine sustainability in terms of public transport infrastructure, travel-to-work areas and so on is having the effect of encouraging regional spatial strategies to focus new developments almost completely within larger settlements or on their edges—on green belt land. We have heard that there are examples of brownfield sites in the rural areas, and we need to be examining those as well. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the regional spatial strategy process, as it moves forward, will also include more support for small, appropriate schemes in smaller towns and villages.

The problem is also caused by the issue of land pricing. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) made a valuable contribution when he spoke about his area’s experiences of development, the attitude of some landowners to the planning process and how their land might be used to meet—or not to meet—the problems that their community is facing.

Local councils do not always insist on enough affordable housing. There are examples of councils that have taken a tougher line on the matter and I hope that we will encourage councils to take the opportunities that exist to deal with the problem. There are a number of indications in the Commission’s report of where it feels that Government policy could expand that area to give more opportunities to local authorities to tackle these problems. We also need to be aware that some guidelines could be clearer and the message could be stronger for local authorities to take advantage of existing possibilities.

Next Section Index Home Page