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Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con):
Does the Prime Minister accept that the Greek and the Portuguese crisis demonstrates that the European Union is in systemic failure? Does he also accept that by collaborating with the proposals for economic government, which he has done under the surface and directly in agreeing to the
statement, he is in fact betraying the British people? As President Barroso said, it is time for Europe to talk the truth.
The Prime Minister: Every time the hon. Gentleman speaks on Europe, we hear that he wishes to see the European Union fail, and every time he talks about Europe, it is as if he has a visceral hatred of everything European. I am sorry that his views are shared so widely within the Conservative party.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Since this Government came to power, the burden on British businesses from EU regulation has risen from £6 billion to almost £6.5 billion a year. Is the Prime Minister proud of that record? Is it something he took the trouble to discuss with his European colleagues at a time when many British businesses are struggling and suffocating due to over-regulation?
The Prime Minister: Of course we want to cut down on unnecessary regulation. We have made proposals in the EU, as we have in Britain, to do so. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would start his question by acknowledging that there are 750,000 companies trading with the rest of the European Union, that 3 million jobs depend on our membership of it and that we should support our exporters by co-operating in the EU. It is only the Conservative party that seems to think that having a permanent conflict with the EU is in Britain's interests. That is not in Britain's interest; co-operation is.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Prime Minister mentioned his pledge on climate change. Why, then, has the UK so abjectly failed to meet its obligations under the landfill directive and failed to follow the lead of many other EU countries in developing energy from waste projects?
The Prime Minister:
The landfill levy has been strengthened over these last few years. It is our desire to make sure that we do everything in our power to use our waste effectively. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman, again, is so blinded against the European Union that he cannot acknowledge that the way to move forward is through greater co-operation with the EU on climate change issues, that we should be pressing to reopen negotiations that failed in some respects at Copenhagen, that the Bonn summit is the way to do so and that we should support Chancellor Merkel in doing that. We
need co-operation on the environment if we are going to move forward in Britain, Europe or the rest of the world. It is global and European co-operation that we need, rather than conflict between us in Europe.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last year, the British taxpayer paid £3 billion to the European Union. Next year, the British taxpayer will pay £6.6 billion to the EU. Is it not strange, at a time when the Government are planning public expenditure cuts, that an additional £3.6 billion is paid to the EU? Does the Prime Minister agree that we cannot go on like this and that it is time for change?
The Prime Minister: It is very interesting that every single question from the Conservative Back Benches has repeated the anti-European position of the Conservative leader. Is it not amazing that not one person has stood up and said, "I support the European Union"? Although the Conservatives have a Back Bencher who did so, he is not even bothering to stand again at the next election. The Conservative party is fundamentally Eurosceptic and anti-European Union.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Did the Prime Minister discuss referendums at the summit so that British people could vote on the Lisbon treaty, which all three main parties promised them they would be able to do? Or does he think that the British people have simply got it wrong?
The Prime Minister: We secured all our negotiating objectives, and made sure that the constitutional treaty-as it was talked about-did not become a constitutional treaty in the end. As for the Conservative party, I accept that it gave an iron-cast guarantee that there would be a referendum on the European Union, but, like the Conservatives' iron-cast guarantees on so many other things, it fell away.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate served in the Household Cavalry in Windsor. I add my condolences in respect of Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate and those who have gone before. We must never underestimate their contribution to our security.
It seems to me that-whether in a European Union or in a world context-the Prime Minister has certainly led our country, but has led us into being the first into recession and the last out of it. Does he accept any responsibility whatever for the decisions that he made?
The Prime Minister: We have talked about this many, many times in the House of Commons. We had a global banking crisis, and we had to deal with it. If we had taken the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, we would still be in recession. On every big decision, he and his shadow Chancellor got it wrong, wrong and wrong again.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Nearly two weeks ago, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister assured me that he would look into whether a No. 10 staffer had taken part in a conference call discussing the suitability of Stephen Purcell in July 2008. Asked about that yesterday on the BBC's "Politics Show", the Prime Minister said that he would investigate the matter, which seems to suggest that he had not looked into it at all.
Given your recent ruling on the reasonable length of time that Ministers have in which to reply to Members, Mr. Speaker, could you guide me on how the Prime Minister can be encouraged to do what he says he is going to do?
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put his views, and indeed his dissatisfaction, fairly and squarely on the record. As he knows, however, and as the House is aware, responsibility for the content of answers is not a matter for the Chair.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. All directory enquiry services, including 118118, are giving my office number instead of the House of Commons switchboard number to people who ask for the telephone number of the House of Commons. Since 18 January this year, we have been fielding your calls and everyone else's calls. The various directory enquiry services will not change that number unless PICT-the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology department-tells them to do so. PICT has been on the case for several months, and has still not done that. Can you help, Mr. Speaker? It may be funny-I admit that it is amusing-but it is not good for the public image of this place if members of the public are passed from pillar to post, notwithstanding the charm and efficiency of my office staff.
Mr. Speaker: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is obviously extremely perturbed about this important matter. It is, however, something that he should follow up with the director of PICT, and I have a feeling-just a hunch-that she will be hearing from him very soon.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give planning authorities the power to require change of use planning permission before existing or new homes can become second homes; to require the Secretary of State to examine the options for using this power to limit the change of use of full-time homes to part-time occupation; to allow local councils to levy business rates on second homes; to provide for small business rate relief not to apply to second home owners; and for connected purposes.
It has been my honour to represent the people of North Cornwall, and I have consistently raised the proliferation of second-home ownership and its effect on rural communities. The problem is not limited to my constituents, of course; it affects many rural areas throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has referred to it, and Members on both sides of the House are aware of it.
As my constituency includes the long stretch of coastline running from Crantock up to Morwenstow, it has a huge tourist industry, and we welcome the many visitors who come every year to enjoy the coastal scenery, as well as those who travel inland to see our wonderful towns and village communities across Bodmin moor. That large influx of visitors supports the local economy and brings many new perspectives, but increasing numbers of them want to grab a piece of the area that they can keep, and keep returning to, by buying a second home.
In 2008, a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale included figures for second-home ownership broken down by local authority area. At that time, about one in 10 homes in the area covered by the former North Cornwall district council was a second home, but the real figure, arrived at if properties that have incorrectly been registered as holiday lets are taken into account, is probably much higher. In some areas, however, second homes meet other demands. That is particularly the case in urban settings, so I am especially concerned about the situation in rural areas, where homes that were previously residential are taken into holiday use and are ultimately left empty for much of the year.
To find out why that is a problem, I encourage Members of all parties to come and talk to my constituents. They might want to stay in a hotel or at a campsite and enjoy the Cornish countryside, and thereby support the local tourist economy, but while they do so they might also discuss with local residents how this issue affects them. In many communities, it has inflated house prices, and the consequent decrease in the local population has led to declining school rolls and, ultimately, to the closure of small schools. It has also led to the closure of post offices because of declining business. It can pose challenges in the recruitment of retained firefighters, too, as those who protect their area by providing such crucial services are forced to move away from the communities where their families have historically lived-to move further inland, perhaps, or into the towns.
High house prices force local people out. Sometimes they are forced out of Cornwall entirely, or at least to areas further from the coast. They are often forced to
travel further to work, therefore, and they are also forced on to the affordable housing waiting list-but, in common with other parts of the country, we already have a long waiting list.
The Government have often sought to turn this issue into one that is purely about the need to build new affordable housing. That is a crucial issue, and I support the aim. My party has long supported community land trusts, and we now have them functioning in Cornwall. We have also supported many other ways of adding to the supply of affordable housing. The second home problem is a separate issue, however, and it is getting worse.
Some have said to me that fewer people are investing in second homes in the current economic climate. Unfortunately, however, that is not the case. In an article recently posted on the propertycommunity.com website, Mr. Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank, said that complaints from locals in second-home hot spots had been a long-standing issue and that the "uplift" in local pricing "can be dramatic." He gave examples, saying that prices in one community in Cornwall were 131 per cent. higher than the local average. He also highlighted communities such as Rock and Trebetherick in my constituency and Bamburgh in Northumberland, where, he said, there were
"second home price uplifts of between 90 per cent. and 100 per cent."
"The number of second homes in England rose by 2.6 per cent. in 2009".
"fall of 0.4 per cent. in 2008"
"rise, which equated to 6,212 additional second homes, pushed the total to an all time record of 245,384".
"Early indications this year suggest that supply in the main second home hotspots is still 20 per cent. below the long term average."
So the pressure on prices will remain. It was reported this month in the Western Morning News that another estate agent, Savills, has said that the revival of big City bonuses and poor returns from other investments were continuing to drive the trend, that 43 per cent. of prime stock bought in Cornwall over the past four years was for use as a second home and that prices in Cornwall were just 8.5 per cent. off their highest watermark in 2007.
We face a particular problem in North Cornwall, where the increase in house prices from 1999 to 2009 was 230 per cent., which compares with an average increase in rural Great Britain of 118 per cent. over that period, so the problem is continuing to get worse. Some people have said that that means that a lot of those properties will always be out of the reach of local people. Although that may be true, those properties fall within a housing a market and any influence at the top of a local area's housing market has a knock-on effect all the way down the chain, hauling up prices and making properties more unaffordable.
What can we do about this problem? The use of taxation is an option that has been suggested, but I am concerned about the basis on which some sort of punitive tax regime could be introduced. Use classes orders, such as those proposed in the Bill, have been proposed consistently by my party over a number of years as a means to tackle this problem. We are not the only ones to have done so; the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has proposed a similar change.
I referred to this matter in my maiden speech in 2005. I was thus delighted to give evidence to Elinor Goodman's Affordable Rural Housing Commission and to read its report when it was issued in May 2006. The report recommended using the planning system to deal with second home proliferation. The Government picked up on a number of the report's conclusions and although they moved to action those, they ran away from tackling the issue of second homes.
In 2008, I served on the Public Bill Committee considering what became the Planning Act 2008 and tabled an amendment that would have allowed local authorities to suggest that the Secretary of State employ use classes orders, which were needed to tackle local problems. That may have had relevance in other areas, because the Department has picked up on the issue of studentification and has come back with possible change of use requirements in respect of houses in multiple occupation. The Department has looked at that approach, but just not in respect of second homes.
More recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was invited by the Prime Minister to undertake an inquiry on the state of the rural economy. My hon. Friend took evidence from a wide cross-section of people and organisations, and produced an excellent and well-evidenced report, "Living Working Countryside", which was published in July 2008. Yet again, the Government agreed to act on a number of key recommendations but, lo and behold, they refused to tackle the second home issue. My hon. Friend's report had again proposed that the planning system ought to be used as a means of tackling it, and he suggested piloting such an approach in the national parks. The Government response was cruelly dismissive towards people in local communities, stating that the Government were
"not persuaded that the 'problem', such as it is, could be tackled effectively through the planning system."
In other words, the Government were not persuaded that the planning system was a route by which the problem could be tackled, despite having said that it was possibly a route by which other issues, such as studentification, could be addressed.
I and other hon. Members have repeatedly raised this issue, which is crucial to local communities such as those in North Cornwall. We need action to be taken to resolve the problem, and it seems to me, as it has seemed to those who have undertaken detailed study of it, that the planning system is the way that the problem could be solved. The Government could at least take that on board and explore ways in which such an approach could be applied. I hope that the Bill, if it progresses, will make a contribution towards tackling this problem, which is crucial to rural communities around the country.
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