Residential Construction and Housing Supply - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:17 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 9:17 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bourne for introducing the debate, and for the positive way in which he did so. I declare my interests, as in the register; in particular, I have been a land agent, an estate agent and a Minister for Housing. The noble Lord, Lord Best, told us of changes that had happened in the last three or four years. If one looks back to when I and my noble friend Lord Young—also on the Front Bench—were Ministers for Housing, times have changed quite considerably.

However, I have just finished sitting on your Lordships’ Rural Economy Committee. Our report is published on Saturday morning. One chapter is dedicated to housing in rural areas. I hope that the report will be in my noble friend’s red box for the weekend, as indeed I hope it will be in many Ministers’ boxes, because there is no doubt that rural areas have been treated in a grossly unfair way by successive Governments, and that needs to be put right—so my noble friend still has a lot of work to do.

Some of the evidence we received was startling. Chris Carr of the Federation of Master Builders told us that the top five constraints on the availability to deliver new homes were the lack of available and viable land, the planning system, a lack of developer finance, a shortage of skilled workers and the cost of 106 contributions. My noble friend Lord Borwick mentioned the 106 contributions as a cost, but I was surprised that my noble friend the Minister did not mention the lack of skilled workers when he opened the debate. I hope he will tackle that point when he comes to wind up.

Our evidence also showed that there is a much greater challenge related to having a supply of houses of the right types and tenures—including owner-occupied, private rented and affordable housing—in the right locations to support a population of all ages. We received evidence that the cost of rental can be up to 31% of a family’s income in rural areas—far higher than in urban areas. Although the population in rural areas is increasing, we were told that the working-age population in those areas is projected to decline by 75,000 between 2014 and 2038. The key to solving that problem is by ensuring viable, mixed communities in rural areas and building more affordable housing.

All too often now, young people are forced to leave the countryside and go into urban areas because of the cost of housing. This means that there will be more older people in rural areas. I strongly urge the Government to encourage all homes to be built to the Lifetime Homes Standard of accessibility, which serves people of all ages. It is no good having a subsection on that; it needs to be a firm requirement that that should be the construction. That was a recommendation of the Housing and Care for Older People All-Party Parliamentary Group report, in which the noble Lord, Lord Best, was very involved.

However, it is not just about the construction of houses; we often forget the people who live in the houses. I can say from my own experience that after my accident two or three years ago, I had to spend time in a rehab unit because I could not go home. My home was not fit for me to live in and I was blocking a bed. I think I am not the only person in this House who can say, “I am still blocking a bed”. My wife and I live in a house that is too big for us and we cannot find the right house to downsize into. A further problem is that of stamp duty. I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that he raises the matter of stamp duty with the Chancellor, because it would be one way to free up the market. I also suggest that any pensioner who moves into a new property in which they are going to live is excluded from stamp duty.

Planning is a hugely important issue and causes developers a lot of problems. It was originally designed to balance the many competing interests associated with land, but our planning system is broken. The Raynsford review has just been published. When will the Government reply to that? One of the recommendations of the review is to have a strong emphasis on sustainable development, with the important caveat that it will also focus on the health, safety and well-being of individuals and communities. I join others in asking my noble friend what he means by sustainable housing.

I want to ask my noble friend about the National Infrastructure Commission. Whether its projects are good or bad, they are not related to the current planning system, and this will pose huge problems. How is that going to tie in with local plans and neighbourhood plans, if there is a body with a different system imposing different rules from those of the Government?

I turn for the last time to sustainability. As my noble friend Lord Patten said, the sustainability of housing does not mean the sustainability of land. According to figures for the last four financial years, between 2013 and 2017 we lost 38,706 hectares of agricultural land. In addition, we lost 2,591 hectares of gardens—equivalent to 10 square miles. That is the size of Exeter and, for my noble friend’s benefit, it is about eight times the size of Aberystwyth. My noble friend promised me that he and the Government would challenge the Mayor of London on his proposal to take more garden land for housing. Can he tell me what he has done?