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Three terms in the amendment struck me. First, there is “particular account”. It is a question of balance, but should the HCA be taking particular account of rural communities? I am not persuaded that that is the way to express it. It should take account, but I am not sure that that should outweigh other considerations. The “viability” of communities is important; that they are capable of independent existence. It should not just be about “rural communities” but all communities. I do not at all disagree with the concerns that have been expressed, but I have reservations about whether this is the way in which to achieve it, because the suggestion implicit and perhaps explicit here—I know that noble Lords who have different backgrounds to mine will inevitably see these things differently—is that other considerations should be secondary. I am sure that is not in the mind of the Government; it is certainly not in mine.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: The Minister will be well aware that it ain’t easy and any solution to a problem—it is a problem—will not be produced in this Committee or in this Bill. As I see it, the Minister and her colleagues have a great responsibility to ensure that the aspirations of the rural communities are taken account of every bit as much as those in other spheres. We can look at the situation in the rural areas. It might be felt that they can easily be defined, but there is a blurring of the edges, and it is not just about town and country. There are lots of areas in between. The pressure under which housing has been put—we are solely concerned with housing here—over the past 30 or 40 years matches with the aspirations of ordinary people. At one time, they would never have dreamt of owning their own home or being able to rent a good home, but that has grown out of all proportion. I well imagine that most people in this Room are owner-occupiers and they have aspired from wherever they were to owning their own home, and they got it.

Thirty years ago, the need of people in the rural areas that we are concentrating on was to be able to buy their own house, and they bought it; they were given legislation, despite protests. The people in the rural areas were not really concerned about what would happen 30 years later; they were concerned about getting on the housing ladder. They bought the house and quickly sold it to buy another house, and away they went. We must not underestimate what

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I would call the selfishness of people. It is all very well saying that someone has the responsibility to do things on a grand scale, strategically but, at the end of the day, the people who live in rural areas are every bit as entitled to be as selfish as those who live anywhere else.

It has been said that housing is not the only product in rural communities that has been under attack; post offices have been mentioned. I have previously pointed out in Grand Committee that the attack on rural communities comes from many directions, not least that of the car-borne shopper. There was once an idyllic concept of a rural area, with a baker, butcher and candlestick maker. They were happy until it was discovered that not only could someone have a car, which they had never had, but could travel to the supermarket five miles away, which they had never been able to do. I am not making party political points, but with the affluence that gradually came they decided to exercise their rights, which we would all support.

Given the opportunity of the right to buy, they bought their own house. Consequently, the council house they had happily occupied under a good landlord—the local authority—disappeared. It is the same with shopping and post offices. If we want to stand still in a segment of life, we shall get nowhere. The Minister and her colleagues must ensure that the HCA is peopled by men and women with experience and nous: sense. They would not need to be told by this Committee or anybody else to ensure that people in rural areas get a fair crack of the whip; of course they are entitled to that. If the proposition was that rural people should get a fair crack of the whip, my hand would immediately go up.

All the arguments put forward about the cost of housing and poor level of wages are part of the rural scene. However, I do not think that the Minister will take kindly to the effective segmentalisation of the needs of those in housing: those who live in rural areas and are, by virtue of living there, entitled to more than just a fair crack of the whip. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Best, said: they were not entitled to special treatment, or something above and beyond. However, I hope that when their needs are looked at by the commission and the officers, they will have half a mind, looking back over a period, to ask whether they did right, by those in not only rural but urban areas. Those of us who had the great privilege of representing constituents in urban areas do not need to be told of the misery of constituents in appalling housing. The answer to their problems comes from not a beneficent landlord but hard-headed decisions taken by the Government. Ultimately, the Government will not be short of advice and special pleading. I do not object to that, but somebody will have to make decisions. The greatest decision, of course, will be over the allocation of resources. It will be some time before one gets the proper balance.

If this were a matter of sentiment I would of course put my hand up straight away. I live in a rural area within an urban setting: Loughton is in the middle of Epping Forest. If you are looking for rural ambience, I have it in Loughton. It is a successful

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town but, within a minute of leaving my house I am literally driving through beautiful forest whichever way I go; the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, knows this far better than I, having been responsible for its stewardship over the years. He and I are both proud and lucky to live there.

It will be difficult for the Minister and her colleagues to do something which marks out those living in rural areas as needing some kind of special treatment. I started out by saying that it is not easy, and the Government will get no credit for it, but I wish the Minister well.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I was evacuated during the war but, if I am allowed to count my grandmother staying on in London during the Blitz, 2007 was the first year in my life in which I did not have a London address. Therefore, I have to declare an immediate interest in that I no longer have a London address and I am now a totally rural person. That in some way affects my attitudes towards this debate.

The pressures on affordable housing in rural areas have already been alluded to. To provide examples, I will simply take two cases from the parish of 200 in which we live. First, I have quoted the example of my former immediate neighbour, a retired disabled agricultural labourer, on two previous occasions in your Lordships’ House, and this will be the third. He has now gone into sheltered housing. A breeze-block bungalow with a simple roof, in which he lived for all his life, was put on the market in part because of brownfield site opportunities. The 0.22 acre site was sold for £300,000, the intention being to knock the bungalow down and to put on that site a house that will have four bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms. We made no complaint to the planning authorities, but it is yet another unit of affordable housing that has been taken away.

In the same way, the son of one of our colleagues in your Lordships’ House, totally honourably—I have no complaint whatever about the process—bought two semi-detached cottages that were attached to each other. Those represented two separate pieces of affordable housing in a single parish are now going to be a single house with further extension. Because of the duties that attach—I am not making any fiscal complaint—to the purchase of houses nowadays, there are any number of cases in the countryside where people are buying houses with the specific intention of extending them. They are not buying them because the house itself will fit their needs, but they will add extensions to them. I immediately declare a vicarious mea culpa, since our own house was sold to us by an estate agent under the slogan, “A 17th century shepherd’s cottage interestingly extended”. It did at least win a Civic Trust Award and is not therefore subject to the next complaint, about which I have an incidental question for the Minister.

I go back to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, at the start of this Committee stage. We are seeing in the countryside a whole series of houses that are being given extensions that have only a nodding acquaintance with the

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architecture of the original building. The Minister does not need to answer now, but do the planning authorities have any design responsibility to see that there is not a discrepancy between the extension and the original building? At the moment, we are running the risk of acquiring the sort of landscape that they have in Ireland as a result of somewhat relaxed planning laws.

I will revert briefly to the urban experience, to follow up on what the noble Lord, Lord Best, said. In 1987, the Peabody Trust, which was a massive landlord in my former constituency, decided that it was not going to provide any priority to fourth-generation families living in a particular community. The Peabody Trust had estates all over the constituency. It was only going to be decided on economic criteria. I said that I thought it ran the risk of destroying communities that had existed for a very long time, whose strength was their very durability and continuity. I am pleased to say, to the credit of the Peabody Trust, that after 10 years it acknowledged that I had been right, and it established a reasonable quota for people whose families had lived in the area for a long time. In rural areas, we do not have landlords with that degree of control. Therefore, the same instrument cannot be used to provide continuity in affordable housing in the countryside.

I recall a meeting of the All-Party Group on Homelessness and Housing Need, which a number of your Lordships have attended. It was addressed by the director of the Rural Housing Trust, who said that the problem with dealing with one-off schemes in small communities was that the costs were disproportionately high and that they were therefore at a disadvantage.

I end on a different personal note. The late Derek Smith, who was a school contemporary of mine, retired from being a farmer and set up ViRSA, which dealt with rural shops. Before his premature death from cancer, he had become involved in housing as well. I cannot say how strongly I support the thrust and theme of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Best. When I became a Member of Parliament, Soho, in my constituency, was threatened with massive demolition. It was saved by the creation of the Soho Housing Association in the area, which did a remarkable job of retaining any number of handsome—frequently 18th-century—buildings that would otherwise have been swept away. The rural housing scene requires a sympathetic and interested resource, however that is achieved, to provide support in the same way as the Soho Housing Association did when it was set up. I am very proud of what the association has been able to deliver, and I very much hope that, arising out of this legislation, we will see similar advances all over the country.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Hear, hear!

4.15 pm

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This debate has been a long and interesting digression on rural housing. I have heard a lot of wisdom in the Committee this afternoon. I am not unsympathetic to the thrust of

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what the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, has had to say. I was particularly interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Best, had to say, because it struck a chord with me. I sat here thinking about this and about the ironies of life. The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and I are of a similar age, and while he enjoyed the playing fields of Eton as a young man, I enjoyed the strawberry fields of Great Bentley. I grew up in a rural community, and I would wager pretty fairly that I am probably the only Member of this Committee who lived in a rural council house. I might be wrong—I have not checked everyone’s entry in Dods—but I have some personal experience, which is why I have particular empathy with the points that have been made.

The council bungalow that I grew up in was the product of post-war visionary planning. I know this because the then Labour Government, in their post-1945 period, ensured that we had a massive home-building programme because of national need. I have spotted in the many years since my childhood that the rural council bungalow that I grew up in is repeated in rural communities all over the country. I have seen it many times. That was because the foresight of politicians of an earlier generation. Wise they were, because it ensured that in many rural communities up and down the country there was social affordable housing, which people who worked the land and who came back from the war could access fairly easily and readily and could afford to live in.

How does that affect where we are today? In some senses—this is a housing and regeneration Bill after all—we are talking about the need to regenerate and ensure that we have more than adequate housing and a range of affordable housing in rural communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, put her finger on this. Part of her critique of the amendment, with which she and I have some sympathy, was that it may fall down in the use of the term “particular”. The post-war Labour Government did not have to have a particular need to achieve their overall policy objective, which was to ensure that housing was regenerated not only in urban areas but in rural ones.

The noble Earl will probably be disappointed with what I have to say, although I hope that he also will be encouraged. I certainly understand where he is coming from. Ultimately, the amendment is unnecessary, and I will set out why. Simply, the Homes and Communities Agency is charged with the creation of strong and sustainable communities. It will be a national agency with skills, expertise and budgets to meet the needs of people living in all areas of the country—both urban and rural communities. Clause 2 sets out objects for the agency which represent the set of principles to which it must work. Anything that the Homes and Communities Agency does must come back to the principles of providing decent affordable housing alongside the regeneration of all our communities, wherever they are located, with a view to meeting the needs of people living in areas of England.

As I have said, we share the noble Earl’s concern about the viability of rural communities. I think that it is fair to say that all too often these communities have

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not been sustainable. Young people and young families just starting out find themselves priced out of the housing market in their villages or have to travel a long distance to their place of work. Strong and sustainable communities in rural areas can be maintained only if those families living there can afford to remain there. Members of the Committee have referred to the impact of the right to buy on rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Best, made the point rather well. He said that the percentage of affordable council housing was lower in rural areas and that the percentage of those houses which were bought under the right to buy is higher; both are true statistically. So we have to take very careful account of that. It is for those sorts of reasons that the Homes and Communities Agency will continue with the national affordable housing programme from one of the transferring organisations, which has targets for rural affordable homes, for social rent and home ownership. The Government have recently announced their target of 11,000 homes to be built between 2009 and 2011.

The agency will be the Government’s foremost delivery agency and will be tasked with delivering strategic housing and regeneration priorities. In practice, the agency will do that by working closely with local authorities to deliver their aspirations for their communities. Local authorities in rural areas will assess the needs for their communities and will, quite rightly, have regard for the viability of those communities. Local authorities in rural areas will set out their aspirations for strong, viable and sustainable communities in their local development plans, in the regional spatial strategies and in their regional economic strategies. They will be knitted together and will have a bearing on how the local authority, as the lead organisation in the area, approaches these issues.

When the Homes and Communities Agency approaches local authorities to plan how to deliver national targets at the local level, these sorts of plans and strategies are the immediate tools which will inform their work and inform the agency’s investment decisions. By working with the local authority at the local level in rural areas in drawing up regional investment plans in partnership with local authorities and regional development agencies, the agency will ensure the viability of rural communities.

There is a desire to specify representation at board level; I understand that. I know that we have had some of this argument, but, picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on representation on the board, I do not think that it is desirable to specify one particular group. In order to avoid having a board where all the specifics are identified and associated with just one individual, we want to ensure that the board as a whole reflects our priorities, including making sure that there is affordable rural housing.

However, in paragraph 1(3)(a) of Schedule 1, there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to,

a relevant matter. Consideration will clearly be given to this in the construction of the board to ensure that particular interests are reflected in its overall makeup.

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It is worth making a couple more points here. We will ensure that the agency will be well advised in terms of benefiting from broader advice on issues related to rural regeneration and rural housing. In March last year the Housing Corporation itself was asked to set up and chair the Rural Housing Advisory Group which reports annually to the department. That group is chaired by Candy Atherton, who is a member of the Housing Corporation with special responsibilities for rural housing. The new agency will have the benefit of that continuing work, and members of that group include former members of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, whose work has been extremely valuable in helping us design our strategy and general approach. Our case is this: we are very conscious of the particular needs of rural communities. The advice, guidance, help and assistance is already in place and will be incorporated into the agency. In terms of board appointments, of course it is going to be one of those issues that will be reflected in how the board is composed.

Finally, on resources, it is worth making the point that currently the Housing Corporation’s programme for 2006-08 allocates to rural districts some 21 per cent of all affordable housing allocations, which pretty much matches the noble Earl’s quoted figure of one in five living in rural communities. We are getting the balance right in terms of funding for that particular housing sector as well. One would expect that to continue over into the new agency, which will be charged with specific responsibilities.

We have had a good debate on a live and current issue. I certainly recognise the strength of feeling and interest, but our approach takes on board many of the noble Earl’s concerns as well as the others which have been expressed without having to go into the business of specifying in the way he suggests. That could have the effect of distorting the general balance in terms of the policy of the new agency.

Baroness Byford: Would the Minister like to reflect on his earlier comment when he said that this is a “digression”? I do not think he meant to say those words, but they were unfortunate when we are dealing with the small but very important question of provision for rural communities. I would hate this to go by without that being rectified, because those of us in rural areas have a feeling that that is what is likely to follow.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I think that the noble Baroness did not understand my use of the word “digression”. I took this to be a debate and a discursive opportunity to look at the issue of rural housing, and I certainly do not belittle it. As I explained carefully in my remarks, I do not just share an interest and a passion in this area; it is my origin, so I well understand the issues. I would not want to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

4.30 pm

Earl Cathcart: That was a very good debate and I thank those who have supported the amendment. I was very interested in the idea of the noble Lord,

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Lord Best, about rural housing enablers. That is an excellent idea that the Government could take on board and think about. The noble Lord mentioned consulting parishioners and the difficulty he had had in one area in Dorset. The parish council is probably quite receptive to his idea, but when you get to local people, they are all right, Jack, because they already have a house, so they are probably less receptive to the idea of more housing in their rather quaint village. It is very difficult to get across to them that, although they might be okay, there are other people who need housing.

The amendment does not ask for special treatment for rural areas, as I emphasised when I started the debate. We are asking that rural areas receive their fair share of attention. I am sorry that the Minister did not like the amendment, or thought it unnecessary, and did not like the reference to taking “particular” account. I offered that if he did not like our amendment, he could come back with a better one that might give attention to urban and rural areas so that the word “rural” is included in the Bill. The Affordable Rural Housing Commission report was published five years ago and we are still concerned about rural areas. It is all very well saying how concerned we are, but we actually need to get something done. We think that something like this amendment would bring the issue to the attention of the HCA so that rural areas are not forgotten. I am disappointed by the Minister’s reaction to that.

The Minister did not explain how the Government propose to tackle the problems in rural areas. What is going to happen in rural areas? At the moment, very little is happening. They have a long way to go to catch up with urban areas to redress the balance. It is all very well saying that the funding is getting better now, but there is a long way to go to redress the balance. That was slightly disappointing.

Unless the Minister would like to come back with a better amendment, in his view, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 28 to 32 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 35:


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