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Housing: Long-Term Plan

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 5:42 pm, 9th February 2016

As a former teacher of year 3 children, I will be particularly mindful of your stipulation on time, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is a privilege to speak in this debate. My only tiny regret with the motion tabled by my hon. Friend Tim Farron is that it makes no reference to Wales. It does, however, make a specific reference to rural communities. I will restrict my comments to the situation on the ground in rural communities, not least in my own Ceredigion constituency.

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Bacon. Many of my constituents will appreciate some of his comments about self-build. My only regret is that his Act does not apply to Wales, but there is certainly an appetite for the initiative in parts of my constituency.

Housing responsibility for Wales rests, quite rightly, with the Cynulliad—our Assembly and Government in Cardiff—but I think that many of the concerns I will briefly outline in the time available will resonate across other peripheral and rural areas. I represent a constituency that covers a vast geographical area. It includes 147 small communities and 600 family farms in a sparsely populated part of west Wales. We have talked for many years, emotively perhaps, about a housing crisis, but now is the right time to do so, because that housing crisis exists.

My surgeries, like those of Teresa Pearce, are packed every week with people with housing concerns. More than 2,000 people in Wales have been on the waiting list for more than 10 years, and 90,000 households throughout Wales have been on social housing waiting lists for some time. The homelessness charity Crisis notes that overcrowding in houses in Ceredigion is above average compared with the rest of Wales. There is particular concern about those seeking social housing, of which there is a lack. Young people and young families face very real pressures. Many face the decision over whether they can stay in the community—the broader community, not just the county—and whether there is any accommodation available for them. The response from the Assembly Government has been inadequate. I regret that there are not more Labour Members of Parliament present, particularly those from Wales, although I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and one of her colleagues for being here. There are issues that the Welsh Assembly Government must address in the coming weeks and months.

The housing crisis has had an effect on rural services more generally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned. When we see the reality of communities that depend on seasonal residents and seasonal tourism, not families who live there week in, week out, we begin to understand the logic behind—and flawed concerns about—the closure of post offices, village shops and long-established banks, and the reduction in viable public transport. There is a vicious circle in the housing crisis. Young families’ inability to stay in a community because of housing shortages directly affects its social and economic fabric. We do not want the vibrancy of our communities to be restricted to the summer holidays or new year’s eve festivities, but that is the reality.

Our county has seen a programme of village school closures, much of it driven by the Labour Assembly Government’s policies, but some of it dictated by declining numbers of schoolchildren in our villages. That is, in part, dictated by the number of young families who are able to stay in our communities without being priced out. That is a direct result of the sale of social housing and the inability to invest adequately, which mean that many people cannot stay in the locality. A few years ago, I remember arguing with the county council about keeping open a school in my constituency: the St John Rhys school in Ponterwyd, in the north of Ceredigion. An integral part of our case that persuaded the local authority to keep the school open was the fact that we could point to new housing development from Mid-Wales Housing Association, one of our social housing providers. We succeeded in keeping that school open, although the numbers are small. The development of that housing association project allowed the school to stay open.

The effect of not getting this right has a much deeper significance and impact on communities. When we read statistics such as those recently provided for my constituency by Savills, which showed that only 22% of my constituents can afford a medium-priced house of £166,000 and that only 52% of two-wage families can afford a property of that price, we begin to understand the enormity of the challenge. We have the widest disparity between wages and property prices anywhere in Wales. That has had a significant effect on the demographic of the community, as the National Housing Federation pointed out in some work last year. The demographic is changing, and the idea of a living, working countryside is at risk.

Last year, the NHF pointed out in an English context that we are seeing the emergence of “pensioner pockets”, as communities shift from being a balance of young families and older people to being made up largely of the elderly. That puts added pressure on social and health services, and that is something that Ceredigion County Council and Hywel Dda health board have been grappling with. The NHF has stated:

“All it would take to deal with the acute housing crisis in rural areas is a handful of high quality, affordable new homes in our villages or market towns.”

My only hesitation in supporting what the NHF has said is that we will need rather more than a handful.

In my county, the local development plan has identified a need for 6,000 new homes, but there are challenges involved in achieving that. The building of affordable homes is governed by section 106 agreements, but the developer on a modest development must either build the affordable properties first—therefore, by implication, the project will not be as financially lucrative in the short term—or face a 10% levy. Of course, many of our small builders operate their businesses on the margins. There is an automatic disincentive or cost to the builder. Many I have met—I met one a short time ago in the town of Lampeter—have remarked that that levy, plus some perhaps well-intentioned Welsh Assembly Government legislation on compulsory sprinkler systems in houses, has had the effect of ratcheting up prices by in the region of 30%. That has an impact on affordability, and it also explains why much dormant land has, in effect, been banked and has not so far been developed.

There are some new developments. I am thinking of the 27 units in the village of Bow Street, financed by the housing finance grant initiative, and the 23 units in the village of Felinfach, made possible by the council making land available at less than the market value. It is no exaggeration to say that these projects were snapped up at the earliest opportunity, which is in itself an indication of the challenge that many of my constituents face, as well as the opportunities for them and the realities on the ground.