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Lord Stanley of Alderley: It is well known that any Division that I win is considered disastrous by my noble friends on the Front Bench. That is why I said it was disastrous. I should add that I did not win the Division by myself; the noble Lord was greatly involved in it and, for all I know, probably egged me on. However, we must get back to the business under discussion.
As I said, the situation today is totally different. I think we are all agreed on what we want to achieve, not least because the Government have accepted that there is a problem and have produced their plan. It is now a matter of whether we proceed by regulation--which, as I understand it, is the way the Government would like to proceed--or whether we need something more reassuring. My view is that we need something on the face of the Bill to ensure confidence and continuity. I should not have thought that it was beyond the wit of the Committee and my noble friend to propose a form of words, perhaps along the lines of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to achieve that aim. I look forward to hearing my noble friend's reply.
Baroness Hamwee: The name of my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley is added to Amendment No. 77. He is unable to be present but on his behalf, and indeed on my own, I wish to support that amendment. I share the concerns of those who believe that the limit of 3,000 dwellings is too low. I take the Government's point about the difficulty of being absolutely precise, given, at the margins, that a car crash or a multiple birth could take
Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: I strongly support this series of amendments, particularly the flexibility given to the Secretary of State in Amendments Nos. 82 and 83. In Surrey, where I have property interests, there are 70 villages designated as rural with a population of 10,000 or under. Of these, 20--which I calculate as being 28.5 per cent.--have populations of more than 3,000. I know that Surrey social services is immensely anxious about its ability to produce social housing. That will depend on the roll-over producing incessant planning consents which are extremely hard to come by in Surrey. I have no doubt that the same thing applies in many of the other home counties.
Lord Hylton: I support all these amendments. I do not discriminate between them. We have been over this ground many times in this Chamber as regards I do not know how many different housing Bills. It must be extremely well known by now that there are a number of perfectly valid reasons why it is not possible to replace certain housing in certain villages and small settlements. There may be planning reasons, green belt reasons, sewerage reasons or a whole stack of reasons why that is not possible. I hope that by now the Government have become extremely familiar with those reasons and will look upon these amendments with favour.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to those Members of the Committee who have taken part in this debate. As my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley said, it seems that we are all agreed on what we want to achieve, give or take a thousand or two, having heard the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. However, we are generally agreed on what we want to achieve. The amendments in front of us are attempts to probe me, or to move the goalposts a little, or to put on the face of the Bill the aspects that we wish to see considered as regards designating rural areas which will be excluded from the right to buy.
The whole of Clause 17 is concerned with the Secretary of State's power to designate rural areas. Obviously the Committee is interested in the criteria that we plan to use to identify exempt rural areas, and the permanence of those designations once we have made them. I hope that I can reassure the Committee on those matters and that those Members of the Committee who have tabled amendments will feel able to withdraw them. Clause 17 specifies that the Secretary of State may designate rural areas where the new right to acquire will not arise. It is our intention that in England this will cover small rural villages of 3,000 people or fewer. In Wales an approach using population density is proposed. However, in England we shall be looking--and we are looking--at the population density in parishes. We are identifying those parishes which have no settlements with more than 3,000 people. That is the key point. It is not a question of the parish in total having a population of fewer than 3,000 people; it is a question of the settlements in the parishes having a population of fewer than 3,000.
Amendments Nos. 69, 71 and 73 together would remove the Secretary of State's discretionary power to designate rural areas and make it a requirement to designate exempt rural areas. As the Committee will know, we have published a consultation paper explaining the general approach that we propose to take in England to identify and exempt rural areas using a settlement population of 3,000 as our guideline. We are consulting on detailed, specific proposals for particular areas. We have already put forward detailed proposals for 30 English counties, and proposals for Wales. The remaining English counties will be consulted shortly. In England we propose to base exclusions on parish areas wherever possible, but where a parish contains both a small settlement and a larger settlement we shall use a map to delineate the excluded area. The settlement assessments are based on the previous census. We shall listen to views either that we have misunderstood particular areas, or propose not to exclude areas with an equally good claim.
Our intention to make rural designations is therefore clear, and the criteria on which we are consulting, and propose to use, are also clear. The Committee has already had the advantage of seeing some of the consultation papers although I accept that they may not concern the part of England in which particular Members of the Committee are interested. A number of consultation papers have been produced. There are two different kinds. There is the general one which lists the places in each county in England. By some accident I am looking at the document concerning Wiltshire. It lists the parishes in alphabetical order. It is followed by a second document for each of the counties in which maps are used to delineate those parishes where a split is required and the whole parish is not to be included, perhaps because one part of the parish contains a large town but outside is a rural area in which no settlement is greater than 3,000, and which we believe ought to be designated. The documents contain much information for noble Lords to see how the Government are carrying out the powers given to the Secretary of State under Clause 17.
I do not believe that the criteria need to be written on the face of the Bill as Amendment No. 83 would do. Indeed, this would prevent the flexibility we need to take account of the different circumstances in Wales, where a different approach is needed.
We have made clear in the consultation paper that we will consider any special cases made for other settlements with higher populations to be excluded. Amendment No. 83 also includes provision for special cases where the Secretary of State is satisfied that there is likely to be particular difficulty securing land for replacement properties. I explained at the end of the last Committee day that replacement properties do not only have to be newly built. Landlords will also be able to use the sale proceeds to buy existing properties on the open market as a replacement for social renting. Specifying a single criterion under which further exemptions could be made severely limits our discretion to deal properly with special cases, on whatever grounds they are made.
Amendment No. 82 attempts to ensure that once a property is within a designated area tenants would not gain the new right unless the settlement population rose to over 10,000. Under our proposals, if a settlement's population goes over the 3,000 mark, tenants will not suddenly gain the new right. This would only happen if the rural designations were changed. We cannot rule out the possibility of revision where a small village, over the decades, grew into a new town. Amendment No. 82 recognises that a rural exemption would no longer be appropriate in such circumstances.
I recognise that there has been concern about the duration of our rural exemptions. But once the rural exemptions are made we would not intend to revisit them. It is unlikely that any new information would be available anyway, except at the 10-yearly census. It might be appropriate to review the designations more generally at some time in the future, but it would certainly be possible to conduct a review using a different, higher population limit to take account of general population growth in rural areas.
The fact that making rural designations proposed in the noble Lord's Amendment No. 82 would be an obligation implies that rural designations will have to be continually reviewed and updated. Our intention is that once rural areas are designated they should remain designated unless circumstances change substantially. I hope that that answers one of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. For the great majority of settlements the exemptions are never likely to change. Once the orders are made, we will not want to revisit them continually.
As it stands Amendment No. 82 would cause particular difficulties if an exempt settlement's population reached 10,000. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, a single birth, multiple births, or a fatal car crash could bring the provision into play or take it out. That cannot be workable. Moreover, it would limit the scope for any errors in designations, once made, to be corrected.
I understand the concerns of landowners who play an important role in the provision of social housing. But landowners need have no worries about continuing to give land at a discount for social housing. As I have explained before, where they have donated land and the tenant subsequently buys, the benefit of their generosity is simply rolled over into the replacement housing, and used to help another family in need.
We have recognised that this process of replacement could be particularly difficult in small villages, where there may be no land to build a replacement, and where there is less opportunity to buy existing homes on the open market. Our rural exemption is designed to protect such small villages.
In Amendment No. 77 it is proposed that every local authority should be required to keep a register of dwellings in exempt areas. Listing all the exempt parishes for the proposed statutory instruments has been a considerable undertaking. To list each and every exempt dwelling, I suggest, would be a somewhat bureaucratic nightmare. There was concern in another
The amendment suggests also that exemptions for properties should be permanent. I understand those concerns. However, again I have to underline my assurance to the Committee that the Government have no intention of revising designations except in exceptional circumstances. However, we need the flexibility to be able to revisit designations if an error has been made or there has been a major growth in population which substantially changes the nature of the settlement. However, if Amendment No. 77 were to be taken on board, the consultation documents produced, say, for Gloucestershire, might be a good deal thicker than this slim volume.
Lord Carter: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that he has misunderstood the amendment. This proposal would not involve a statutory instrument. The local authority would keep the list in exactly the same way that it now does for houses with an agricultural restriction on them. There would not be that many in each area. The Minister will be better briefed on this issue than I am, but the number of houses involved will not be that great. It would be up to the local authority to keep the register.
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