Housing: Affordable Rural Housing Commission

– in the House of Lords at 11:22 am on 8 June 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 11:22, 8 June 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they will respond to the report of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the Government will use a range of channels and mechanisms to respond constructively to the agenda set by the commission, including in the forthcoming spending review.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that his Government's record is poor and that the housing build in rural areas fell by 4 per cent between 2003 and 2005, compared with an increase in urban areas of 19 per cent? One of the commission's recommendations was that 11,000 units of affordable housing should be provided each year in settlements of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. How will this be achieved?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I do not agree that our policies have failed to serve the interests of rural communities, but I do accept that there are real challenges. In the past two years for which I have statistics, there has been a welcome increase in the number of new units being built in rural settlements of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. In 2004–05, for instance, 1,646 were built—up from 1,450 in the previous year.

We obviously need to give careful consideration to future spending plans. In general terms, the spend is not the problem; the issues that we have to tackle at root are releasing land and ensuring that the planning authorities respond to the real rural housing pressures.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent government decision that will allow the retention of a proportion of affordable housing in rural areas is very welcome? Does he also agree that this is not enough on its own if the required number of affordable homes is to be built in the rural social housing sector?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. In her introduction to the report, Elinor Goodman, who chaired the commission, made a comment that rang a bell with me. She said:

"Without housing which people on lower incomes can afford, rural communities will increasingly become dormitories for the better-off".

That is the real challenge; we must stop that process. We will continue to pursue in a constructive vein the very measures that the report endorses.

Photo of The Bishop of Norwich The Bishop of Norwich Bishop

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the Affordable Rural Housing Commission that the work of rural housing enablers, of which there are about 40 scattered around the country, has been extremely productive, despite very low pay and uncertain career prospects? Do the Government accept the commission's recommendation for an extension of three years' funding for rural housing enablers so that opportunities for building affordable rural homes are not lost?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, obviously we will consider that issue. The report makes a good point with regard to that. I pay tribute to those people who have acted as enablers and to those who have acted in partnership. In particular, on looking at the report, I was attracted to the approach adopted by Wealden District Council, which has worked closely with local parishes to try to identify land for release for additional rural housing in that difficult part of the south east.

Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat

My Lords, what are the Government going to do about second homes? In my area, £200,000 is being asked for a miserable cottage in bad shape. It would appear that there is no hope for local people if that goes on. There must be a method of making second homes less attractive.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I accept that there is a difficulty with second homes, but in many rural areas the real issue is affordability. We have to try to increase the volume of affordable housing and ensure that there are sufficient homes for rent and for purchase for those on lower incomes.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that if a landowner sells land at agricultural value for affordable housing—I declare an interest as I have been asked to do that—subsequently the occupier or owner of that housing could not then sell it on the open market and make a vast profit? That probably sometimes dissuades people from allocating or giving land at a reduced rate for this purpose.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, my noble friend is obviously speaking from knowledge and experience, touching on an important issue. Clearly, it is something to which local authorities must have careful regard and which we need to continue to monitor.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Government consider two things as they respond to this report from the Affordable Rural Housing Commission? First, will they consider using some of the hugely increased revenue from stamp duty? The Minister will be aware that the Government now receive £1 billion a month from this source. Many of the areas referred to in the report have seen house prices double and they have contributed to that fund. Secondly, will the Minister reconsider the Government's stance on VAT on repair and refurbishment? This commission recommends that: it is yet another body to do so. I declare an interest as vice-president of the National Home Improvement Council which still continues to press the Government on this issue.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, on the first point, I will repeat what I said earlier. Core funding obviously is a concern, but it is not the main issue. It is the release of land and ensuring that planning authorities respond positively to provide sufficient scope for development in some rural areas. For instance, I think that in the Lake District, the money allocated to ensure an adequate supply of affordable rented and low-cost market housing was not entirely used up in the last period of distribution. On the second point, clearly it is right that we continue to keep that issue under review. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising it again today.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, how do the Government define or measure "affordable", first, in the case of a house for sale and, secondly, in the case of a house for rent?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, obviously it has to have accord to average incomes and a measure was used quite effectively in the report. I recommend the noble Lord to have a good read of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission's report. It is most interesting.