It is interesting to note that this is one of the better attended debates that we have had for some time, and I suspect that that reflects the importance of housing in most of our constituencies and the sheer volume of people who come to see us about the difficulties which they are experiencing.
At least one reference has been made to the quality of housing in some rural areas, and I should like to take this opportunity to underline it. It is not so long ago that a constituent of mine came to one of my surgeries to explain his problem. It seemed to revolve round the fact that his Elsan, which was his modern sanitation, had a hole in the bottom of it. I remember asking him, with a wry smile on my face, how he managed. He replied "It's all right, I 'ad an ol' milk chum at 'ome and I 'acked the top off 'e." He did not seem desperately worried for himself, but his wife thought that there was a rare chance of there being an accident. I recollect writing a letter to the landlord. My constituent got a new Elsan and, to an extent, that was one minor problem solved. My constituent was not expecting to be connected to modern sanitation; he was in some ways quite satisfied with the existing state of affairs. But for a while he could not even get for himself an Elsan without a hole in the bottom of it.
Rural housing looks picturesque, but in many ways it causes great difficulties, and I want to take the opportunity today to point out a specific problem which is peculiar to rural areas, especially tourist areas. Certainly it affects my constituency. I refer to what are known locally as "summer lets".
Summer lets are not second homes. When I first came to this House, I remember tabling a Question asking the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he was satisfied with the number of summer lets in Cornwall. The Department rang me up to ask me what a summer let was. I was asked "Do you mean a second home?" I replied "I do not mean a second home. I mean a summer let." It is property let by the week for a very high rent in a seaside resort which has a large tourist trade.
There is a great deal of money in this. It is not easy to find accommodation for four or five people in August in a resort such as Mevagissey. A great many people are prepared to sleep several to a room during their holidays in conditions that they would not be prepared to put up with during the rest of the year. A property in Mevagissey in August can fetch between £100 and £140 a week. There are many places where people are delighted to receive payment in cash—and we all know why.
One is made continuously aware of this trend. If one goes canvassing in my constituency and knocks at a door where someone lived whom one knew, one will often get no reply, but a neighbour will say "There is no point in going there now, Mr. Penhaligon. It is a summer let." There is no control over this situation. To pile insult on injury, these people even get domestic rate relief. I am not claiming that if that relief were abolished it would make all that much difference, but it is there.
The amount of property used for summer let purposes in my area is one of the main causes of the housing difficulties there, yet such property is actually given domestic rate relief. There is simply no control. I have had a lot of correspondence with the Minister about it, but he merely says that it is up to the local authorities to act. I have written to the housing officers of my local authorities and they say that they have no power or control. It is true that if they give planning permission for new houses they have some control over the use of those houses, and they may specifically allocate a house for summer let purposes or they may not, but they have no control over property that was built many years ago.
My view is that before this property can be used for summer lets it should be subject to planning permission for such a purpose. Someone owns a house, and wishes to change it to a shop. In such a case he has to apply to the local authority for permission to make that change of use. Very often the local authority in my part of the country—I suspect that this is true of others—will turn the application down on the specific ground that it is not prepared to see a reduction in the local housing stock because it has a housing problem. I often applaud a local authority for taking that line. But the use of that self-same property, owned by the self-same person, can be changed for ever and a day, for summer lets, without any planning permission being required.
In my eyes, there is no difference between using a property for selling chocolate or children's plastic buckets or cabbages and selling property by the week in summer as accommodation. I must try to convey the sheer magnitude of the problem. I can think of one village in my constituency where over 25 per cent. of the property is used for summer lets. This type of letting is spreading like a cancer—that is what it is in areas like mine. It destroys the community. The town becomes a winter ghost town—no one lives there, no one is seen there. This cancer is gradually spreading from the more attractive areas into the villages. It is happening throughout the West Country and Cornwall in particular.
I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister says about this situation, about which we have corresponded over the years. The situation is not acceptable. There will never be a solution to the housing problem in Cornwall if we allow the mass transfer of property from ordinary letting to summer let. There is no way in which my ordinary constituent who works in the clay industry, or worked until recently in the tin mines, can compete for properties used for this purpose. Rents in August in Mevagissey are, as I have said, between £100 an £140 a week, and the ordinary Cornishman cannot compete with that.
Now, to compound that great difficulty the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), speaking for the Conservative Opposition, today clearly stated that the Conservatives will give an inalienable right to anyone in my constituency or anyone else in tourist areas to buy council houses in which they live. If he gives council tenants the right to buy he also, quite rightly, gives them the right to sell to whomever they choose. In Portscatho there is a row of 20 houses overlooking the harbour. I cannot imagine my ordinary constituents being, able to compete in buying those properties. So there will be yet more people down from London and taking summer lets, occupying that important part of our community. I assure those who enjoy holidays in my part of the country that they will not be so keen then, because there will be no one left to make the beds in the morning or to man the shops or to clean the streets or to make the place pleasant, because there will be nowhere where ordinary Cornish people can live in these Cornish seaside resorts.