Rural Communities: Prince's Countryside Fund — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:56 am on 7th October 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 11:56 am, 7th October 2010

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for this wonderful opportunity to debate an important topic. I look forward to the maiden speeches, particularly from my noble friend Lady Eaton whose brilliant work in local government I am more than familiar with. With five minutes allotted, I will cut to the chase. My theme is the desperate need for affordable housing for local people in rural areas. Yes, the outlook for creating the necessary affordable housing appears bleak, but there are grounds for some realistic optimism.

I would identify the barriers to producing the affordable homes that are so badly needed in rural areas under four headings: first, fierce local opposition to development; secondly, restrictive planning requirements; thirdly, lack of funds to make homes affordable; and, fourthly, disproportionate costs and effort for organisations, particularly housing associations, to get involved. It is much easier to produce 60 apartments in an urban area than it is to build six homes in a village.

I believe that there are solutions to each of these problems and I shall take them in reverse order. First, rural housing enablers were invented by the Rural Development Commission in the 1990s with funding from the Housing Corporation after a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. These individuals can really make things happen. They are the brokers, the go-betweens and the facilitators who work with the parish council, the land owners and the planners, and they bring in the housing association when all is sorted out. That prevents the need to go to endless meetings in the village hall-starting at six and finishing at midnight-night after night. The rural housing enabler does all that for you and housing associations can bring their skills in getting the homes built and meeting all the design criteria. At the end of the day, we need more of them, and they are very inexpensive when spread over a number of schemes.

Secondly, on funding, as part of the reform of the housing revenue account, with which the Government thank goodness are pressing forward, local authorities need to be entitled to retain all the proceeds from the sales under the right to buy of council housing, and the proceeds of any other sales of land or property, and recycle those proceeds into new homes. That does not add to the public sector debt. The Homes and Communities Agency, which will not have as much money in the future as it has had in the past, should still give some priority to rural housing in the grants that it gives out. But most important, the exception sites planning policy should be liberalised. This can represent the way to raise funds that make homes affordable without extra government grants.

Let me explain this in a little detail. If a couple of homes for outright sale are permitted in a place where planning consent would not normally be granted, the landowner can receive market price for the two houses that are sold-remember that market price may be £700,000 to £1 million an acre compared with an agricultural value of £5,000 to perhaps a maximum of £7,000 an acre-and then land for perhaps six homes for affordable housing in the form of rented or shared ownership can be provided without the land having to be paid for at all. The cross-subsidy does the trick and can make homes affordable for people in perpetuity.

The contentious issue is that of local opposition. It is one of the crucial reasons why development is currently being prevented in so many areas. People in the countryside often hate change. Sometimes they fear that young families will be bad neighbours, they do not want their view to be spoilt, and they believe that more homes may reduce house prices. Yet, as I know from many years of sometimes harrowing experience in getting new rural housing schemes going, after the new homes are built the fiercest former opponents are often the first to say how much better village life has become because of the young couples who have been able to bring up their families there.

I turn to how to change hearts and minds. The Government intend to introduce two new measures which I hope will make a difference. First, the new homes bonus will reward councils that are positive about new house building, providing funds which will be denied to councils that block new housing. This should strengthen the hand of councillors who show the leadership to support new home building.

The second measure proposed by the Government is the community right to build programme, giving local communities the chance to give planning consent without any of the bureaucracy and delay that is built into the system so often today. Local housing trusts and/or local people working closely with existing housing associations, perhaps helped by a rural housing enabler, can pursue these schemes. But on how to decide whether the community really wants new homes or indeed even business premises, the Government's first thoughts were for a 90 per cent yes vote in a referendum. The Housing Minister has subsequently softened this to a 75 per cent yes vote, but others have argued that this is still a huge hurdle when we know that it is very much easier to get a good turnout for a no than for a yes vote when the outcome is uncertain. Bodies such as the Rural Coalition, the CPRE and others have suggested instead that the planning authority should still be engaged in the process and, indeed, that if the parish council is on board, the scheme should proceed. It is well worth us all getting behind more rural housing, and there are other positive opportunities to get things done.