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Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to another point. We are in discussions about eco-towns. It is not always right to think in terms of houses going where people need them. It is

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sometimes difficult to find places and opportunities to build houses where people need them immediately, but that does not go against the provision of more affordable housing because nowadays people move about. If there are better opportunities to provide the houses in places where people do not yet live, those houses will be best provided. I am sure that one aspect of what will happen in the market is that people will move to the houses because they will find good reasons to live somewhere other than where they started. In our society as a whole, the number of people who live in a different place from where they started is rising every year.

Lord Best: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart. It is great to have another champion of rural housing in your Lordships' House alongside the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who has been a champion of rural housing for all these years. I should know because I was secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh’s inquiry in 1976, which reported on this matter. The noble Lord spoke shortly after we reported on that issue.

Why should rural housing get a special mention in the duties placed upon the HCA? For the past 34 years, not least from your Lordships' House but from other quarters as well, the Housing Corporation has been constantly reminded that this small corner of the total housing picture deserves some special, extra attention. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made the important point that the right to buy has had a special influence in rural areas. People have bought their homes in rural areas to a greater degree than in urban areas. I could take noble Lords to a very pleasant village in Dorset that had 17 council houses on its edge. They have all now been sold and there are no social housing homes in that village. The right to buy can wipe out all the social housing in certain places. The constant reminder to the HCA that this is a part of the scene that needs a bit of attention is important.

The new agency brings together the powerful English Partnerships and the extra powers from the Department for Communities and Local Government, almost all of which concern urban issues; for example, the Thames Gateway, urban development companies, the regeneration agenda and the housing market renewal pathfinders in the north. Those are all urban issues. Rural housing has already been a difficult part of the housing scene to hang on to. There is a danger of it being watered down unless there is a reminder that it is part of the duties that the Homes and Communities Agency must take into account.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I had a problem with this amendment in the previous stage because of the phrase “in particular”. I used the term “balance” then. I am pleased to see that that notion has been taken forward in this amendment. In Committee, I was persuaded by the descriptions given by the noble Lord, Lord Best, of the difficulties of achieving housing in rural areas. I think he mentioned Cerne Abbas then. He might have roamed around the whole of Dorset; I do not know whether it is the same Dorset village. Over the years, I have slowly been coming to the realisation that it is necessary to pay—I shall use the

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term—particular attention to achieving housing in rural areas because, in some ways, it is much more difficult. It is not just a question of numbers here or there. Ensuring the success of rural communities is a major objective. As the debate has gone on, that qualitative distinction of rural areas has been brought out.

This is not intended as a cavil but like, I dare say, many noble Lords, I am more urban than I am rural, but I am probably suburban. That may be a bit middle-aged and boring, but an awful lot of people live in the suburbs. Many of them are pretty good places. When the noble Earl sums up, I hope he can assure me that suburban is within his term “urban”.

During the previous stage, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that the predecessor amendment was unnecessary, and he may be about to say something similar today, but I hope he will address whether it is wrong.

Baroness Ford: My Lords, I am not able to support the noble Earl’s amendment, but not because I do not think the spirit of what he described is right. We all understand that the fragility of services in rural communities has a direct relationship to the critical mass of hamlets and villages, and the inability to maintain basic services—education, local schools and so on—is critically dependant on the provision of proper housing and housing for young families. We all understand how difficult it is for young families to be able to stay near grandparents and to have the kind of social network that would come from being able to access to affordable or market housing close to where they grew up. My objection to the amendment is that, as it stands, I do not think it achieves what the noble Earl would like to do.

In Committee and today, we have talked a lot about the need to respect local authorities’ say-so over the plans in their area. One of their particular responsibilities is to express the housing need in their area and the Homes and Communities Agency responds to that. That has always been the way in which the national affordable housing programme has been invested over the years. We cannot on the one hand say it is for local authorities to articulate that and for the HCA to respond and on the other hand say that the HCA is to do that. As I read the noble Earl’s amendment—and he may correct me if I am wrong—it would not achieve the intention he sets out, however much support there is for it around the House.

6 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I support the amendment. Indeed, I had a great deal of sympathy with the similar amendment tabled in Grand Committee. I will not rehearse the statistics; we heard ample statistics in Grand Committee on the extent to which rural communities have different growth trajectories for social housing and those statistics are on the record. I shall make two or three simple points on why the availability of more affordable housing in rural communities is a matter of concern and why, therefore, it should be addressed through this amendment.

First, the principle is simple. There are people who either choose to live outside cities or simply cannot

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afford to live in cities, but that does not mean that they should not have a voice. There is the idea of being part of a community. Indeed, we now have the Department for Communities and Local Government. The idea of communities is at the heart of what this Government believe should be a tool for regeneration, for reinvigoration and for making people have shared endeavour and shared purpose. Therefore, it is extremely important that those people should have a voice, although they may well be small in number and are not for whatever reason—whether choice or affordability—part of the larger urban or suburban landscape. However, because of the unfortunate figures and the changes in trends on the amount of social housing available, those people are losing their voice.

Secondly, democracy is part of the shared endeavour. The noble Baroness, Lady Ford, rightly argued that there should be local decisions and so on, but you can diminish democracy. The HCA will have considerable powers and resources. Should there be in the Bill a duty on the HCA to take account of rural communities? That democratic voice would be far more to the forefront if the amendment were made. It is as simple as that.

We go for champions in other areas of life. We recognise the need for ethnic minorities and women to be represented on boards and so on. Ideally, I would have liked to see a champion, but I accept that that is not where we are. Even if we do not have a champion to speak for rural communities, the amendment would concentrate peoples’ minds, not necessarily when they are making clear-cut decisions on the allocation of resources and so on, but when they are making decisions in the grey area where there are conflicting priorities—and there are many priorities. That is when such a duty would make a difference. It would be assessable, because we would be able to see the extent to which rural aspects had been brought to the fore.

Finally, on something more topical in relation to what the Prime Minister said today in Japan at the G8 summit, we are considering exhortations that we need to live more environmentally coherent lives—for example, that we need to conserve energy and, more recently, the supply of food. We will achieve those longer-term environmental objectives only if we recognise that a lot of the policies that we undertake today will impact on those objectives. We should make provision for smaller numbers of people from minority groups who choose to live near where they were born or where their parents live—not people such as me who have come from half way across the world, or my siblings, but people who want to be within 15 miles of where they were born when they die. It is important to recognise that the longer-term environmental objectives that we want to achieve may well be served by giving voice to those people and catering for their needs. That objective may well be among the intentions of the noble Baroness, but it is not in the Bill and it would be most helpful to see it there.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this has been one of those extraordinary debates where we have gone from the local to the global. We have scaled the history of housing with input from my noble friend, who talked about the long-term impact of council house sales, and we heard heartfelt pleas from the

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noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, for people who live in rural communities. He added his important voice to a debate that has continued in your Lordships’ House for some decades. We have benefited from the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Best, who has great experience in this field.

We are talking about the creation of the HCA, an important agency, to address many of these issues. As the noble Earl reminded us, this issue has caught our attention at all stages of our important deliberations on the Bill. The observation of the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the rural community in Dorset reminded me of my rural roots. I mentioned previously that I grew up on a rural council estate in Great Bentley. Much of that estate of some 50 houses and bungalows was sold off as part of the right-to-buy process. Most of those homes were built for people working on the land just after the war and for people who worked in offices and factories in Colchester or Clacton. Those homes provided an important service for lower-income earners. I well understand the issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart.

The noble Earl’s earlier amendment used the term “particular”. At the end of our deliberations in Committee, there was an understanding, best enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that “particular” did not work well in the context of the noble Earl’s amendment. I carefully read this amendment, which asks that,

The amendment does not make precise reference to rural communities; it describes anything that is not urban as “non-urban” and it talks about balancing the needs. I have difficulty with the amendment, because the call to balance could arguably end up as some imbalance. There is a problem with the wording. I do not know how much the noble Earl tested out the amendment before tabling it, but there are technical difficulties in what he is trying, understandably, to achieve.

I want further to address the issues before I conclude my comments, because some things are worth putting on the record. I entirely agree that more affordable homes need to be built in communities that most need them. There is undoubtedly a backlog of need in some rural communities for the very reason that the noble Lord, Lord Best, enunciated. Others have also given voice to that. There is no question but that one of the central tasks of the new Homes and Communities Agency will be to deliver more affordable housing where that need is greatest. The agency will focus on delivering more new affordable homes across all tenures, in mixed and sustainable communities, and it will drive and invest in regeneration and revitalising existing communities.

To do this, the HCA will support local partners that will deliver the new homes and regeneration projects and it will provide advice and support for innovative new approaches to delivery—for example, through new local housing companies or community land trusts, which have had a great deal of support during our discussions. It will also help to drive more effective joint working with the emerging private sector partners.

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In taking over the affordable housing programme from the Housing Corporation, it will secure the delivery of 70,000 new affordable homes per year by 2010-11. In the current market conditions, this role becomes ever more important and the agency’s ability to act innovatively and in partnership to respond to new challenges becomes vital.

Therefore, the noble Earl’s concerns will be met by the new agency focusing on delivering affordable housing across all our communities. The amendment is not essential to ensure that; the Bill’s clauses are already clear on this point. Indeed, with its reference to housing needs assessment, the amendment seems unhelpfully to require the HCA to replicate functions already carried out by local authorities, so there is also a difficulty with it in that respect. Local authorities are already required to undertake housing needs assessments and it would be an unnecessary waste of resources to require the HCA to carry out a similar exercise. Indeed, local authorities are far better able to assess the housing needs in their area than a national agency such as the HCA. I imagine that, with his background experience in a rural local authority, the noble Earl would appreciate that more than most.

The other issue raised by the amendment is the importance of affordable housing in both urban and non-urban communities. I have already explained that the agency will work with local authorities across the country, supporting rural and urban authorities in meeting the needs of their communities. Local authorities will identify those needs and the agency will have the resources to help to meet them where it is practical for it to do so.

As we have said many times before, we see the agency as being local authorities’ best delivery partner. To help to strengthen that message, the draft protocol between the HCA and local authorities—I am sure that the noble Earl has seen it—demonstrates the commitment of both central government and the LGA to working together to meet today’s and the future’s housing and regeneration challenges.

I know that the House takes this issue seriously. As I think was acknowledged in my noble friend’s letter, at earlier stages we set out in some detail exactly how government are responding to challenges in rural areas and how the Homes and Communities Agency will help local authorities to respond to the needs of their communities in the rural context.

I extend an offer to noble Lords to hear in more detail about the work of the agency at a meeting on this important issue with the chief executive designate, Sir Bob Kerslake, and the chair designate, Robert Napier. I think that noble Lords would find it helpful to have the opportunity to discuss what the agency can do in practice and to raise any concerns that they have. My noble friend Lady Andrews and I will be happy to arrange that discussion and more than happy to ensure that colleagues who are particularly exercised by the import of rural communities take part in it. I know that Sir Bob Kerslake recognises that the agency will have a key role in supporting rural communities, including focusing on the provision of affordable rural housing. I know also that he has met Matthew Taylor MP to discuss his review of the rural economy and affordable

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housing and that he has seen, and commented on, his draft report. He also recently met the All-Party Group on Rural Affordable Housing and intends to meet the Rural Housing Advisory Group on Thursday this week. Therefore, much is going on with regard to this policy area. Of course, the Rural Housing Advisory Group will act as an advisory body to the HCA to ensure that rural housing issues are seen very much as part of its focus and remit.

As I said at the outset, I do not think that the amendment works entirely well. There are technical problems with it and I do not think that it would work as well as the noble Earl might wish. I know that he is pressing his case and that he has a lot of support in your Lordships’ House. I hope that I have reassured him but I place one final commitment on the record. If the noble Earl will withdraw the amendment this evening, we will be happy to have further discussions with him to see whether we can meet his concerns and those of others before we return to debate the Bill at Third Reading.

There is a genuine problem with the amendment and I am not sure that it is the most appropriate way to deal with this issue. However, we are certainly happy to explore it further because there is clearly a consensus that we need to ensure that the HCA focuses not just on urban areas, although that has never been our intention. We need to ensure that the HCA is understood to have the widest possible remit and that it addresses the real concerns relating to rural poverty and, as some have seen it, the rundown of the provision of affordable housing in some rural communities. I have given some fairly firm commitments and I hope that the noble Earl will be able to withdraw his amendment. We are happy to continue discussion on this issue before Third Reading.

6.15 pm

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, that was a useful debate and I thank all—or nearly all—Members for their support. The noble Lord, Lord Best, asked why rural housing should get a special mention. I think that that was a rhetorical question because he then went on to explain exactly why it should get a special mention. In the same vein, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked why there was a greater need for help in rural as opposed to urban communities. I listened carefully to his contribution but I could not make up my mind about it. At times, he seemed to support the amendment and at others he seemed to speak against it.

I shall tell the House why rural communities need greater help. In the five years from 2001 to 2005, the Commission for Rural Communities highlighted a gap, in that the amount of affordable housing built in predominantly rural districts increased by only 3 per cent compared with 22 per cent in predominantly urban districts. That is why rural areas have been falling behind and why in future there needs to be a balance between the urban and rural areas.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked whether suburbia was included in urban or non-urban areas. The point is that it is up to you. You can decide whether it is urban or suburban; it has to be one or the other. In the earlier letter to which I referred, the noble

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Baroness, Lady Andrews, tried to confuse the matter slightly by asking about district and coastal towns. Rather than trying to be precise in this amendment by putting in “rural” and having that same ball batted back at me, I thought that we would refer to “urban and non-urban communities”. The board of the HCA has to balance what it will do between urban and non-urban areas. It is up to it, so it is not confusing at all. The Minister said that he had a problem with the word “balance”, but it is up to the HCA to work out how to balance needs.

I do not buy the Minister’s argument that there is a technical problem. The problem is that non-urban areas desperately need a better balance of resources. They have not had that for a number of years—I shall not specify the number. The balance needs to be redressed. The amendment is not trying to be prescriptive by saying that for every £4 spent in urban areas we must spend £1 in rural areas or that for every four houses built in urban areas we must build one in a rural area. It says that it is up to the HCA board to balance the needs for affordable housing in urban and non-urban areas. It is for the HCA to work it out.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, kindly offered a promise of a talk. He did not promise anything for the Bill. Whereas a talk might be valuable, we really need something—

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I was being Delphic, but when I referred to a discussion I did not mean about nothing. It was to see whether there was some substance with which to aid the process. The offer was that; it was not to talk about nothing. I am happy to discuss wording with the noble Earl.

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, I take that to mean that the Minister will discuss doing something of substance with the words of the amendment, such as including “rural housing”, “balancing rural housing”, or whatever words are required. I suggested in Committee that the Minister should do that but nothing was done then, so it does no harm to test the opinion of the House.

6.22 pm

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 8) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 96; Not-Contents, 128.

Division No. 1


Addington, L.
Alton of Liverpool, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. [Teller]
Attlee, E.
Avebury, L.
Best, L.
Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, B.
Boothroyd, B.
Bowness, L.
Bradshaw, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B.
Cathcart, E.
Chidgey, L.
Colwyn, L.
Cotter, L.
Courtown, E.
Craig of Radley, L.
Cumberlege, B.
De Mauley, L.
Dholakia, L.
Dixon-Smith, L.
Dundee, E.

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Dykes, L.
Eccles, V.
Elton, L.
Falkland, V.
Falkner of Margravine, B.
Fookes, B.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L.
Garden of Frognal, B.
Gardner of Parkes, B.
Garel-Jones, L.
Glasgow, E.
Griffiths of Fforestfach, L.
Hamwee, B.
Hanham, B.
Harris of Richmond, B.
Hooper, B.
Howe of Aberavon, L.
Howe of Idlicote, B.
Howell of Guildford, L.
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