Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 20th October 2008.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice 7:15 pm, 20th October 2008

Amendment No. 429A introduces a new clause in relation to the use class orders, which neatly follows the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, as it is concerned primarily with rural areas. I hope that Members on all sides of the House will share my concern that they are not ignored in this very important Bill.

There is a welcome emphasis, which I think is shared by all sides of the House, for the way the Government are seeking more local determination and community involvement. It is important to establish that we all share enthusiasm for the revival of localism and greater responsibility for locally elected councillors. Most of the Bill has been concerned with major development projects and policies, but my proposed new clause is specifically aimed at the more immediate concern of residents of particular areas, of their communities and their elected representatives. They must surely be given renewed confidence that they can discuss and determine the appropriate planning policies for their own areas.

My proposed new clause may well help many communities to do just that. However, as the Minister may be aware, my especial concern is for a problem peculiar and critical to areas of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and, indeed, the Lake District, Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom. In those remote, scattered communities, which are very popular for second homes, there is a huge problem in need of urgent attention relating directly to the planning system.

There is no problem with second homes in some parts of the country, notably in London. However, it is clearly true in some communities—not least those in north Cornwall that I represented in the other place—that second homes reach a point where they are simply so excessive in proportion to the natural housing stock, when they so dominate a town or village, that they present social, economic and planning problems. I remember one particular parish council area reaching well over 30 per cent second homes. When that parish council—Crantock, near Newquay in Cornwall—surveyed other councils in other parts of Cornwall, it found some also in excess of 30 per cent. At that point, the school is no longer viable; the post office and shop close; services such as bus services collapse; the police cover is reduced; and the health centre is removed. There is a "ghost village" in winter. This is a direct responsibility of the planning authority, because there is a major drain on local authority services.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, earlier referred to nimbys: the "Not in my back yard" people. They are often the most recent arrival to a village. This is writ large in those communities where the nimby representatives have a second home. The last thing that they want is any development for additional social or affordable housing. It is a huge problem, and getting worse.

I emphasise to the Minister that this is a proper responsibility for the planning authority. Unless the Government come forward with some specific new powers, or new ways in which a planning authority can obtain that power, there will be a continuing escalation of this problem. There is no power at the moment. The full-time residence and the second home are in the same use class, so no consent is required to transfer from one to the other—despite planning conditions in many parts of the country insisting that a particular development is only for holiday use. It is therefore perfectly possible to do this, it is just that the Government have not been prepared to follow that precedent.

As I am sure the Minister and others would agree, the last thing that we would want is a blanket restriction on second homes. We want those communities faced with the problem on such a scale that it reduces social cohesion to be prepared and able to take some responsibility for finding a solution. Hence the use of the use class order in certain circumstances. We do not want "The man in Whitehall knows best"; not least, the Minister will be glad to hear, "The woman in Whitehall knows best". We want locally elected representatives to be enabled to initiate locally the application of the use class order only when and where that may be necessary. It may be a very restricted area, but it is extremely important in those areas.

There are two well researched reports—still on the desk of either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State—on rural housing, one prepared by Elinor Goodman, the other by Matthew Taylor, MP. They have laid great stress on the importance of doing something to provide affordable housing for rural communities. So far, the Government have failed to respond. I hope that the Minister may be able to do that this evening.

Some people seem to think that the current housing crisis will alleviate this. Not so. While those seeking substantial investment opportunities away from the roller-coaster stock market may well put more money into investing in second homes in the expectation that scarcity will give them additional value over the long-term, they will of course continue to outbid local people by paying generous prices for second homes that will be quite out of the reach of those on modest incomes.

In north Cornwall, when I represented communities there in the other place, we had the biggest affordability gap in the whole of the United Kingdom. The average local incomes in the area were way out of the average local house prices. I recall the day after the devastating floods of August 2004 in north Cornwall, when Boscastle was an appalling mess. We were very lucky not to have any loss of life. I took the Deputy Prime Minister there, and he asked about the long-term situation for coastal villages like Boscastle. I explained to him that young coastguards, RNLI crews, police and emergency personnel—the very people he had been congratulating on saving lives and saving that community—simply cannot afford to live anywhere near the coast in areas like Cornwall. That is true of many other parts of the United Kingdom. So much of the housing stock there has been bought up by those from outside wishing to establish a second home.

I hope that there will be sympathy for my position from the Conservative Front Bench. With their newfound interest in these areas of the rural economy, I am sure that the Conservatives will recognise what a major problem this is. I hope that no Members of the Committee will be inhibited by being personally interested as having a second home from expressing a view on this extremely important issue. Principally, however, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to indicate this evening what, precisely, the Government are prepared to do for what is now becoming a devastating problem for a small number of communities. Unless we are prepared to address it as a Parliament, it will get a great deal worse.

I look forward to the Minister's response a great deal. She has been kind enough to give me a slight indication of what it might be in the form of a letter. I hope that she will forgive me if I quote from it.

"There is a lot that local planning authorities can do already to influence land uses in sensitive areas by using powers already conferred by the Use Classes order, backed by suitable policies in their local plans".

There is no such power for second homes. We need that power, and we need it now.