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11 July 2006 : Column 399WH—continued

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I will touch on the crucial issue of second homes as a cause, which my hon. Friend raised. We have heard about the league table that shows which counties that is a particular problem in, and I speak not just as a member of my party’s team of spokespeople on this issue but as a Member of Parliament for a Cornwall constituency. In North Cornwall it is a huge problem. The parish of Crantoch in my constituency wrote to all the parishes in Cornwall to ask them to come up with a figure for the number of second homes in their parishes. Some appalling statistics came back from some parishes and showed the distortion. I believe that in Manaccan in my hon. Friend’s constituency the figure was 80 per cent. That is clearly unsustainable. Sustainability in the round is vital.

For solutions I refer hon. Members to South Shropshire where councils have taken a robust line with developers to ensure every opportunity of providing as many affordable homes as possible. We must look at methods of providing council homes, whether through the taxation system or, more helpfully, a planning category for second homes. The Government must make every effort in their spending commitments to ensure that additional money is provided for more affordable rural housing schemes.

12.11 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): As we are straying into planning policy, Mr. Hood, I declare an interest as the director of a property and building company.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on the sensible and measured way in which he introduced the debate. With housing matters, it is usually easier to identify the problems than to identify the solutions, but, unusually for a debate in this place, a number of good ideas have come out of our debate today. Some have come from the commission’s work and some from hon. Members’ experience, which proves that there are solutions. However, I am not sure that they are solutions from the centre; I think that they are solutions that must be delivered in those communities with the greatest difficulties.

I shall set the context. The number of affordable homes being built has fallen over the past half a dozen years. In 1996-97, 32,489 were built and in 2004-05, 22,823 were built. Although the trend is now upward, we did not expect that fall when a left-wing Government were elected. There has also been a substantial collapse in the number of first-time buyers. There were 503,000 in 1997, which fell to 320,000 in 2005. Some of that fall is due to changes in the housing market and some to lifestyle changes. Some people want to do their own thing in Kathmandu and to buy a property in their 30s rather than in their 20s, which was perhaps the case in the 1980s. Nevertheless, there is a real problem.

The hon. Member for Sherwood set out clearly the problems in rural areas. A statistic that I saw recently was that in 2003 37 per cent. of people in rural areas paid more than half their income in mortgage payments whereas only 26 per cent. in urban areas did so. Some of that is a feature of lower wage levels, but certainly people are willing to gear up to get their little corner of England. The result is that there are real
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burdens. Those who were born and grew up in an area face substantial competition and difficulties.

I feel that I should say something nice about second home owners, partly because of the tone of the debate. I do not consider them necessarily negative, negative, negative. I understand what Cornwall Members are saying. We have the same problems in Dorset, and they cause particular housing problems. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned some of the problems, not least definition. Second home owners are often people who have grown up in an area but have moved away to work and intend to return when they retire. They inject money into the local economy. Second homes are sometimes rented to tourists and tourism is very important in the south-west.

It is interesting to note the personnel who have taken part in the debate. Although they have changed a little during the past hour and a half, two thirds of the hon. Members in the Chamber are from the south-west of England. If one put a pin in the area with the real pressure, it would be the south-west.

Andrew George: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about second homes. With the benefit of hindsight, does he think that it was a good or bad idea to spend hundreds of millions of pounds through the council tax subsidy under Conservative legislation subsidising wealthy people to have second homes when so many thousands of people in areas like mine cannot afford a first home?

Mr. Syms: That has changed now, and those people pay 90 per cent. of the council tax. My party has accepted that, but when second homes are sold they attract capital gains tax, which first homes do not. Most Members of Parliament have a second home for their work and face capital gains tax on either their property in London or their property in their constituency. There are fiscal disincentives. Even if a definition could be found, I am not sure whether two housing markets could be created. That is possible in the Channel Islands, which have special status, but I am not sure that it is possible here.

To return to the tenor of the debate, if we focus heavily on second home owners, we miss the point, which is finding land for development. The key point that was raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) and the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is the difficulty of finding suitable sites for affordable homes. Most of my experience of rural areas comes from when I was a district and county councillor in Wiltshire. I was always surprised that growth was pushed into towns and that the villages had lines drawn around them that were so fierce—they sometimes went through people’s gardens—that it was almost impossible to have any organic growth.

The hon. Member for Stroud made an important point about services and one factor is that unless there is some organic growth in villages, a proper cross-section of people and ages is not retained and services such as post offices, schools and rural transport are not provided as the population becomes slightly more
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elderly and perhaps slightly better off, so the way in which the area grows is distorted. The growth factor is important.

On the question of farms, in my experience there are sometimes opportunities for both light industrial use and housing growth on farms on the edge of villages, but that tends to create strong emotions. When I was leader of a district council, we made proposals for certain villages to become local centres to allow more growth. I have never been faced with such a large avalanche of letters and protests from people in those villages who did not want them to grow. The difficulties are understandable.

The solution is to give a lot more flexibility to local planners. If local people are given the ability to vary local planning without an inspector overruling them, they are in much the best position to create local solutions to local problems. I know numerous examples of district and parish councils signing up to schemes, but being overruled by national planning policy. I hope that when the Minister looks at planning policy statement 3 she will allow a degree of flexibility for housing in rural areas.

We heard that 11,000 units are needed, which is not an awful lot, and it should not be beyond the wit of people in rural communities to provide that. We have heard today of water companies, the Ministry of Defence and a number of public corporations that have sites in rural areas that could be adjusted and used. The local solution is the best solution and some sensible ideas have come up today. I understand the strong passions and emotions about the second home argument, but I do not think that it is the key. The key argument is to provide suitable sites for land so that our villages can grow more organically.

Design is terribly important. Sometimes, the best way of getting the design that one wants is to control the land, which Prince Charles has often done, particularly with his developments in places such as Poundbury in Dorset. His control of the land allowed him to do rather more with the development. We must consider giving local planning committees more flexibility on design. I am not sure that we want all housing to look the same, whether it is in Warrington, Basingstoke or Plymouth. Local materials and the local look not only add diversity but can make our country look more attractive.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing the debate, and on raising the issue of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission report, which is widely agreed to be extremely important and weighty. The Government added to that report. We set up the commission precisely because we were concerned about affordability pressures in rural areas. Such areas face all sorts of additional challenges and wider issues to do with affordability. We are looking to develop some of the recommendations and to take forward the commission’s work. I shall try to give hon. Members a flavour of some of the work now under way.

However, we recognise that there is a wider problem of affordability that affects both rural and urban areas; my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is right
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about that. Housing supply is simply not keeping up with housing demand. More than 200,000 new households are formed each year, but only about 160,000 new homes are built a year. The level of house building is significantly lower than it was, say, 30 years ago. As long as there is that gap between new household formation and the number of homes built, there will be growing pressures on affordability across the country in future. Our assessment and research suggests that if we simply carry on at the current rate of house building, over the next 20 years the proportion of 30-year-old couples able to afford their own home is likely to drop from more than 50 per cent. to nearer 30 per cent. That is simply unsustainable, given the aspirations of first-time buyers and the next generation.

My hon. Friend is right that rural areas face particular problems, and hon. Members raised a series of issues. Problems can include restrictions on areas in which homes can be built, the planning system, and the quite proper need to protect the countryside in rural areas. It is important to recognise that there can be different levels of wages in rural areas; in particular, agricultural wages can be much lower. We also have to recognise that there are wide variations between rural communities. Small coalfield villages that face regeneration challenges are different to affluent commuter villages, which are different again to coastal villages. Rural areas will face very different challenges, and we should not make the mistake of assuming that there is a single answer for all rural areas.

Equally, we need to recognise the challenges set out in the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s report. The commission challenged the approach to sustainability that was built into the planning system some time ago. Often, the well-intentioned response to the need to protect brownfield development and to ensure sustainable development in terms of transport, including public transport, has been to focus the vast majority of new development around big cities and towns. However, as the commission makes clear, the consequence is that some of the wider issues around sustainability that affect rural areas have not been considered.

Hon. Members have pointed out the challenges that result when young people cannot afford to buy homes in the villages and rural areas where they grew up. They move out, and local schools can become unsustainable as a result. Just as there is an ageing population, there can be ageing villages, as young people often cannot stay in the area because there are no homes for them to move into. The approach taken by the commission is right, and we need to consider the idea of the living, working, and changing countryside, as my hon. Friend said. That is why we have stated that we need to reform the approach through planning policy guidance, and through our new draft policy on planning for housing, planning policy statement 3. The commission welcomes our approach to PPS3, and says that it builds in the kind of flexibility that we need when approaching the subject of rural areas. We need to allow them to grow where necessary, and to respond to local demands.

The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) mentioned a case in his constituency. He will be aware that I cannot comment on individual
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planning cases. I was not involved in the decision, and although I am aware of the case, he will know that I cannot comment on its details. However, I would like to address some of the broader issues linked to it. He asked a question that was really about whether there should be more flexibility for small sites in rural areas where needed housing could be developed. I agree that there should be, and that is exactly why PPS3 tries to incorporate that approach for the future.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked, effectively, whether it should be easier to adapt to housing need and not to be bound by out-of-date local plans. I think that it should be easier to update local plans, and that is why we are changing the approach to planning to encourage local development frameworks. Aspects of such frameworks can be updated much more easily. Also, the change will mean that decision makers need not simply respond to decisions that may have been made years ago about the housing needed in a particular area, but could instead consider current need and market demand, and so could be more responsive to market approaches. That is our new approach as part of PPS3 and as part of the response to the Barker inquiry.

There are two ways for hon. Members who face such problems in their area to deal with the issue. First, they can think about what can be done to update local plans more rapidly and to take advantage of the changes that we have made to the broader planning system; secondly, they can consider how applications measure up against the new approach in PPS3. We hope to publish the final version of the planning policy statement later in the year; we have already published the draft for consultation. It is useful to compare planning applications that are currently coming through with the approach in the new guidance.

Hon. Members mentioned the need for shared ownership and social housing, which is an important subject. Predominantly rural districts account for about 23 per cent. of the population, and get about 21 per cent. of the social housing budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned smaller local areas. Some 19 per cent. of the population live in settlements of fewer than 10,000 people, and just 10 per cent. of the programme budget is spent on them. That suggests that, although a proportionate share of resources goes to predominantly rural districts as a whole, my hon. Friend is right that social housing is being built predominantly in market towns and larger communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked what we would do to support social housing, and asked whether we could use community land trusts. I agree with him that we have an important opportunity to support more social housing and shared ownership in smaller communities.

There are particular opportunities for the use of section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) mentioned. Nationally, 140,000 new homes were built in 2004. Of those, 100,000 were built with no developer contribution at all to either affordable housing or infrastructure. That is not fair. As a result, rural areas in particular can end up not getting their fair share of shared ownership and social housing. Our assessment was that if all rural communities could do as well as the best rural
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communities in getting resources out of section 106 and the planning gain system, there would be substantially more affordable homes being built in rural areas, and we particularly support that.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised the issue of second homes. The Financial Times asked me about the national approach, and we were talking about the national economy. The fact is that second homes account for about 1 per cent. of overall housing stock. There are plenty of rural and urban areas in which second homes account for less than 0.5 per cent. of housing stock. The reality is that the national housing market and the national affordability problem is driven by lack of housing supply, not by issues to do with second homes.

However, I recognise that in some areas second homes create particular pressures. Some communities do face particular pressures; we have always recognised that. We asked the Affordable Rural Housing Commission to look into that because we thought it such an important issue. However, the challenge faced by the commission is one that hon. Members have long debated in this House: it is the issue of what workable measures can be used to address the problem. That is difficult, but we have to recognise that there are broader issues, including the amount of affordable housing and new supply. We have to do something to challenge that problem across the country.

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Charitable and Community Events

12.30 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Mr. Hood, it is delightful to see you in the Chamber in a different context.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that concerns a great number of people. I should like to bring to the attention of the House the way in which local police authorities invoke section 25(1) of the Police Act 1996 to charge charitable community events considerable sums for police cover. It puts scores of events at risk by making them financially unviable. In Devon and Cornwall alone, some 80 annual charitable community events, which are a vital and cherished part of community life, may disappear.

Section 25 of the 1996 Act states:

That provision replaced an earlier, identical section, section 15(1) of the Police Act 1964, which itself was based on common law established by Glasbrook Brothers Ltd v. Glamorgan county council in 1925.

Why am I concerning myself with a well established and historical police power? Until recently, the police did not exercise the power in relation to charitable and community events, but the varying attitudes of police authorities throughout the country have created an unequal and unfair playing field. Community events flourish in areas where police choose not to charge, while in others, community life grinds to a standstill as police price events out of existence.

The House needs no convincing about the benefits of such charitable and community events. They bring together communities, foster social cohesion, maintain precious traditions and enhance our cultural life through the hard work and dedication of altruistic volunteers who give up their time for the benefit of the community. However, the current legislation draws no distinction between charging for the charitable community event and the commercial profit-making event. It also provides no clarification of what constitutes “special police services” above and beyond what the police are obliged to provide as part of their regular service. It devolves the entire responsibility for setting the scale of charges to individual police authorities. Yet again, we see a postcode lottery. As in the health service, it is true of the police service.

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