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3 Nov 2009 : Column 197WH—continued

10.39 am

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this excellent debate, which has been of far better quality than some housing debates I have attended in this Chamber. I also congratulate the Minister, whose constituency of Stevenage neighbours my own, on her new role; it is not an easy job because the problems of rural housing, as hon. Members have explained this morning, are enormously complex and acute.

I will not spend too much of the precious time available repeating the figures that have been mentioned this morning, other than to emphasise the extremeness of the position. Six of the 10 least affordable places to live in Britain are in rural areas, the second least affordable being the south-west. There really is an emergency out there, and we have only seen the crisis get worse over the past few years.

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If the problem is big, what are the solutions? I was struck by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who spoke of the need for the Government to get more stuck in and produce more homes. He argued for a more top-down, centralised approach to housing. I did not agree with that part of his speech because it strikes me that such an approach has not worked over the past few years, but I most certainly agreed with his second point about community land trusts, particularly the excellent one in Stroud, which I shall talk about in a moment.

I also acknowledge the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who described in detail the problem of unaffordable housing for the inhabitants of the island, many of whom are forced to move off the island to find somewhere reasonable to live. That problem was reflected in different ways by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for St. Ives (Andrew George).

I turn to some of the solutions. We all agree that community land trusts could provide a large part of the solution, but the problem is that very little is actually happening. Some time ago I met Sir Bob Kerslake, shortly after he had become chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, who proudly told me that his ambition was for the HCA to help deliver four community land trusts by the end of this year-only four. I do not know whether it is on track to meet that target and I will be sure to ask him when we meet this afternoon, when I shall also ask whether one of those trusts is in Stroud. It seems to me that the goal is nothing short of pathetic.

The idea of community land trusts has been around for decades. Indeed, I set up a community land trust taskforce last year to try to find out why they had not succeeded, and a contributor to the taskforce explained that he had first stumbled across the idea 30 years ago. It is a mystery why things have taken this long, which the taskforce is unravelling. One of the problems, as the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, is that even after a collection of people have got together, decided on an idea and gone out to consult the public, other bureaucratic obstacles get in the way. He said that can lead to a 10-year delay, but I can tell him that the village of Essendon in my constituency has been waiting for between 20 and 30 years for a few houses to be redeveloped, even though they are nothing more than asbestos-ridden, post-war bungalows that are falling down and derelict. I went to a village meeting in Essendon to listen to local concerns about housing and assumed that people might talk about the Government's plan to stuff 10,000 to 15,000 homes nearby, but in fact they wanted to talk about the lack of affordable housing in the village and explain to me how long they had been waiting for something to be done.

Having visited Stroud, Rock in Cornwall and most of the pilot community land trust schemes across the country, we developed the idea of local housing trusts, which would be like community land trusts. Land would be locked in perpetuity for the benefit of the local community, answering local need for affordability. However, there would be one significant difference: a local housing trust would be able to grant itself planning permission to build. During the last few months of this Government, will the Minister give serious consideration to enabling local housing trusts to go out there and do their job?

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Having visited places across the country, I am convinced that there would be a large demand once local people are given the direct power to say, "This is our community and we are not prepared to sit back and wait for someone else to ride to our rescue, because we know what needs to happen here", rather than having to rely on a regional spatial strategy that orders them to place the housing in a particular area or wait for the local authority to sign off on the development of just a dozen houses in a village. The land might come from the parish, the local authority, a benefactor or a landowner, or people might have to buy the land themselves, but because that land would be on an exception site, the only buyer in town would be a local housing trust, so one would expect the houses on it to be built at a reasonable, in-between price.

That is how we can start to solve the affordable housing crisis in our rural communities. It would allow people to reinvigorate the parishes and villages that are suffering from falling populations and finding as a result that the village school cannot stay open, that the post office closed two years ago or that they cannot sustain a GP surgery. Putting people back in control and allowing them to innovate for their own communities is far more likely to achieve a solution than the vast array of quangos set up by the Government.

I invite the Minister, in her response, to take some of those ideas on board. It cannot make sense to have regional spatial strategies with a whole string of quangos under them, such as EEDA, CEDA, ERA, SERA, NERA, DERA and many more besides, none of which has delivered the kind of housing numbers we require, particularly in our rural areas. I invite her not only to match the idea of local housing trusts, with power to grant themselves planning permission, but to match our policy of allowing local areas to keep the council tax. They should keep not only the council tax that is collected at the moment, but 100 per cent of it, pound for pound, matched in addition for every single new home that is built for a period of six years. To ensure that sufficient numbers of affordable homes are built, they should keep 125p for every pound of council tax collected. That is the way to incentivise local communities and ensure that they get something back from regeneration and additional housing. If we put local people in control, trust them and give them the power, tools and incentives, I guarantee that more homes will be built. If the Minister will not do that, we will certainly be happy to.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and on giving us an opportunity to air this vitally important subject once again in this Chamber. He obviously belongs to the William Cowper school of thought; like the poet, he believes that man made the town, but God made the country, but he extends that to the assertion that God made his constituency and did not seem to have much of a hand in any of the other 645 in the country. I will not argue about that here, as the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and I both inhabit extremely beautiful constituencies and would be prepared to argue that point outside.

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I do not intend to talk much about the vitally important subject of the rural economy, mainly because the debate is about affordable housing, but I know how the two interlock and how important businesses are to rural economies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned. I know that not only as a constituency MP, but as Minister for the East of England, which has significant rural representation. In that role, I would like to counsel the hon. Members for Welwyn Hatfield, and for Westmorland and Lonsdale, not to discard completely regional spatial strategies, which have their role. The Taylor report rightly pointed out that we need to keep track of the impact of those strategies on rural areas. Indeed, a report on that impact is shortly to be published.

Grant Shapps: With regard to the Minister's plea to keep regional spatial strategies, is she aware that in both her constituency and mine it is now the RSS that is delaying homes being built?

Barbara Follett: Much as I hate to contradict the hon. Gentleman, I believe that it is the fact that the county of Hertfordshire is taking us to court over the RSS that is delaying homes being built. Also, I fear that the instruction that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has given to Conservative councils-there are many more such councils than Labour or Liberal Democrat ones-to take the Government's money and not build houses but just lodge planning objections is having a slowing effect on building projects such as the one west of Stevenage. I believe that there have been attempts to build that for 25 years. That kind of conservatism, with a small and a large c, is putting up barriers to many of the things that we are trying to do. Charles Darwin said that it is not the biggest or the smallest species that survive, but the species that are willing to adapt, and I regret that the hon. Gentleman's party has not learned that lesson yet.

Andrew George: Much as I regret having to intrude in a local spat, I wonder whether I could bring the Minister back to the primary issue, which is the relevance and impact of regional spatial strategies, which several people have mentioned? In particular, I bring her back to the fact that because they represent the dead hand of central control, they do not allow local authorities to show their initiative, to cut deals and to address local housing need.

Barbara Follett: There are two ways of looking at control: as a dead hand or as an enabling hand. I see it as enabling-one just has to know how to work the system well. I would like to make progress, because a vast number of questions were raised, and I am not sure that I shall manage to answer them.

I know that the latest statistics from the Commission for Rural Communities show that, on average, house prices in rural areas are more than seven times higher than household income. I am even more aware that that compares unfavourably with figures for urban areas, where prices are 6.3 times the average household income. For that reason, among many others, rural housing and housing as a whole are high on the Government's agenda.

We will invest £7.5 billion in housing as a whole, from which one cannot divorce rural housing, in England between 2009 and 2011 to deliver 112,000 new affordable homes. In the past 12 months, we have built 47,000
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affordable homes, 2,400 of which were in small, rural communities of fewer than 3,000 people. Given that we were-and still are, to some extent-in the middle of one of the worst recessions in living memory, that is no mean feat.

Grant Shapps: Will the Minister give way?

Barbara Follett: I am sorry, but I have to make progress.

Throughout the recent downturn, we have taken steps to secure housing growth and to support the construction industry. Measures such as the 2009 Budget stimulus package, the housing pledge and the local authority home building programme-yes, indeed, it has started again-commit the Government to invest a further £1.5 billion to build 20,000 more new affordable homes by the end of next year.

The Kickstart programme, which, as its name suggests, aims to get stalled sites building again, is also moving ahead. Indeed, of the 37 approvals in Kickstart round 1, 14 are in rural areas, where schemes for up to 30 units were allowed to bid for funding. By contrast, in urban areas, schemes had to have at least 50 units to be eligible. In addition, as part of the housing pledge, the Government have allocated £7 million to rural authorities to build more than 200 new social rented homes in small settlements across the country.

We know that rural areas face particular challenges, such as a shortage of suitable sites and a lack of infrastructure, which make it more expensive to deliver an affordable home in a rural area than in an urban one. That makes the targets that we set at the beginning of the current spending review period for the delivery of affordable homes in rural areas even more challenging than those set for other areas. [Interruption.] I am about to deal with that.

Sadly, the target of the Housing Corporation-now known as the Homes and Communities Agency-which was originally for 10,300 affordable homes to be delivered in small rural settlements between 2008 and 2011, has had to be reduced to 8,500, thanks to the toughest market conditions in living memory. However-this is important-that target is an ambition, not a limit. We hope that we can secure more new affordable dwellings through Kickstart and local authority new-build programmes.

As the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) said, planning has a major role to play in the delivery of affordable homes in rural areas, and planning policy
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statement 3, which the Government introduced in 2006, makes local authorities responsible for providing housing that contributes to the creation and maintenance of sustainable communities in market towns and villages. It also gives local authorities some of the power for which hon. Members have been asking. We allow local authorities to set site size thresholds that are below the national minimum, and, where practical, they can grant permission for 100 per cent. affordable housing on small sites that would not normally be released for housing.

Since the rural White Paper of 2000, all Departments have had to rural-proof their policies. In 2007, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was invited by the Prime Minister to report on

The hon. Gentleman's report, entitled "Living Working Countryside", was published in 2008, and my Department, along with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has published a joint response, which sets out the actions that we will take to implement it. In April, one of those actions resulted in £500,000 going into a three-year project to establish a sustainable community land trust sector, in which independent, not-for-profit organisations own and control land and facilities for the benefit of the community.

We have also done a great deal to allow people to purchase homes under our low-cost home ownership schemes, and here I would like to try to deal swiftly with the access-to-loans issue that hon. Members have raised. It is a real problem, and, as both a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister and a regional Minister, I have meetings with the banks to ensure that those who wish to buy affordable homes can get the credit that they need to do so. We are working with lenders on that, and HomeBuy Direct, Halifax, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nationwide, Woolwich and HSBC have all agreed to loosen some of their risk-averse practices, but we still have to work hard to get the money flowing again.

Section 106 has proved a real problem, but we shall introduce community infrastructure levies, which are currently out to consultation. We hope that they will be in force in 2010, and that they will be a more efficient and more sustainable means of delivering infrastructure via the developer and the local authority. I wish to end by saying that affordable housing in rural communities is a problem, but one that this Government are doing their best to solve, and I would welcome the co-operation of other parties on the matter.

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Farm Animal Welfare

11 am

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I intend to highlight the importance of public sector food procurement and the role it has to play in improving animal welfare standards for meat and poultry in the United Kingdom and abroad. I will concentrate on one key area of public procurement-eggs-although the argument could equally apply to pork or any one of a number of factory farmed products. I call on the Government to introduce legislation that will prohibit the public sector from buying eggs produced by caged hens and encourage the purchase of eggs produced to higher animal welfare standards, progressing on a sliding scale from barn eggs, to free range to organic, including eggs that are purchased individually as well as those used as ingredients. In doing so, I wish to make a larger point about public sector food procurement, which is that fine words and lofty sentiments are not enough. The Government must take the lead by introducing mandatory health and sustainability standards for all public sector food. I place on the record my thanks to those estimable organisations, Sustain, Compassion in World Farming and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for the part that they are playing in helping to achieve this goal.

There are four legally recognised categories of eggs: caged, barn, free range and organic. Caged eggs are produced to the lowest standards of animal welfare, from hens in cramped, tiered cages with sloping mesh floors. Each hen has an equivalent living space of 550 sq cm, which is less than an A4 piece of paper. The strength of public opposition to cage-produced eggs resulted in a decision by the European Commission to outlaw the sale of caged eggs by 2012. Barn eggs, free range and organic eggs are reared to considerably higher standards: they come from hens that have access to litter and to the nest site of their choice. They can flap their wings, exercise and explore their environment.

History shows that achieving real improvements in the health and sustainability of public sector food is only possible by introducing mandatory standards. The Government's success in revolutionising school food was achieved because legislation was passed to introduce mandatory nutritional guidelines monitored by the School Food Trust. Indeed, the problem with public sector food has not gone unnoticed by Government. There has been a rash of activity, which no doubt the Minister will tell us about in a moment, aimed at improving the nutritional value and sustainability of public sector food by voluntary means. Although well-intended, such projects have failed precisely because they were introduced as voluntary initiatives and missed out on the concrete benefits that would have been achieved by introducing mandatory standards.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted on such initiatives. The £40 million spent on the better hospital food initiative in 2001, for example, which introduced new menus for hospital food devised by a celebrity chef, did not achieve a step change in the nutritional quality of hospital food. A more integrated attempt to improve public sector food under the six-year public sector food procurement initiative, managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,
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which was introduced in 2003 and wound up this year, is another example of good intentions that did not lead to real change-at considerable cost to the taxpayer. An evaluation conducted by Deloitte tactfully concluded that

Both schemes had some short-term successes, but they were expensive and did not achieve long-term change. The moral of the story is clear: voluntary schemes do not work; real change depends on introducing mandatory standards.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is focusing on egg production, but chicken meat and other areas are just as important. The Minister, who is a decent and able man, may respond by saying that Departments are required to seek best value, from which we infer that they obsess to an extent on price. Does my hon. Friend agree that husbandry, locality and quality should be incorporated within that best-value concept and that that will drive up nutritional standards, as well as the welfare standards in respect of the animal products we use?

Mr. Mullin: Yes, I agree. I will touch on some of those points later.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that price has to be important, because we are talking about public bodies? One reason we have price inflation is because the consumer-the bulk of those purchasing foodstuffs in this country-is unable to differentiate between products that are produced to our own high welfare standards and those that are produced elsewhere to a standard that falls far short of that. Would it not be best if we were able to give consumers proper choice? If that happened, the competitive disadvantage of our own producers would be, to some extent, erased and one would hope that prices would fall as a result, generating a win-win situation for both public sector bodies and animal welfare.

Mr. Mullin: Yes, I am in general agreement with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, price is not the only consideration. I have always believed that we have to take into account the consequences of our actions. As all those hon. Members who have taken an interest in factory farming know, it involves some disgusting practices that many farmers deeply regret; in fact, many farmers feel forced into pursuing such practices by the continuous drive to the bottom that occurs if price is the only factor. The hon. Gentleman is right: there is no point making the reforms here if imports produced in countries that do not observe the same standards are dragged in. We have to bear that in mind.

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