Rural Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 11th March 2003.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:00 pm, 11th March 2003

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes the point well. In North Cornwall, where only 3,500 properties are available for rent through the local authority, given that there are more than 1,600 people on the waiting list, nearly half the properties could be immediately let again to people on the waiting list.

Penwith went through the process of stock transfer in 1994. As a result, it is debt free and is therefore entitled to levels of housing grant for further capital investment to which many other local authorities are not entitled. With the money from the stock transfer, and the extra money that it is able to obtain from the Government through local authority social housing grant and other sources, it is able to engage in a social housing building programme that many other local authorities would envy. Last year, it built 40 properties of which it is particularly proud as a result of its investment, but it had to sell 45 of its properties under the right to buy. It is therefore running as fast as it can in order to slide backwards, which is the nature of the unsatisfactory system.

Many of my constituents in Penwith find themselves with no alternative but to be housed in entirely unsatisfactory bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Many of them come to see me in my casework surgery. I know that many hon. Members who have experienced the problem feel, like me, absolutely helpless. One can ensure that the system works fairly on behalf of one's constituent, but one knows full well that there are not enough private rented and social rented properties in the marketplace. We are talking about families who have to uproot themselves from their local communities and live in bed-and-breakfast establishments in which people's children are often not even in neighbouring rooms. The accommodation can be small and cramped, which is totally unsatisfactory, and located far from people's workplaces and their children's schools. The issue increasingly affects local authorities.

I know that the Government have set a target that within the next year local authorities must no longer have people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In Penwith, 80 households are living in such accommodation and I doubt whether an authority such as Penwith district council, even if it works heroically during the next year, can achieve the Government's target. I have serious concerns about that.

I have talked specifically about west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, but rural areas in general have fewer properties available in the rented sector and people in such areas have to wait longer to find accommodation. A parliamentary answer to me from the Minister on 27 February stated at column 732W that people in urban authorities must expect to wait 370 days to be housed, but in rural areas they must expect to wait 426 days. That is a significantly longer wait. No one can say that the housing crisis in this country is an urban one when people on waiting lists in rural areas must wait longer. If people in my constituency thought that they would have to wait only 426 days, they would be pleased.

There are fewer opportunities for people in rural areas. There is also the issue of invisibility. In deep rural areas, people who want to remain living in their community because they are farm workers or work in the area know that all the council properties have been sold off and that there is no point in trotting along to the local authority or housing association and putting their name down on the waiting list. They also face the added problem of invisibility. What is the point of waiting for a bus on a Sunday if there is no bus? What is the point of putting their name down on a local authority waiting list if there are no houses in the vicinity in which they want to live? People in rural areas on the Isles of Scilly and mainland Cornwall sometimes find themselves living in cramped accommodation with three generations in one household if they want to stay in the vicinity. Because of the informality of rural areas, people tend to be tolerant of such arrangements and do not sleep on park benches. Homelessness is hidden in rural areas, but it certainly exists.

If the Government are saying that they want to invest in the completion of affordable new units to meet that need, I would point the Minister to a parliamentary answer on 6 February at column 418W. In reply to a question about how many social rented unit completions in local authorities are defined as rural, the answer was—I shall give only two figures for comparison—5,514 in 1989 and 2,021 in 2002, a significant drop of more than 60 per cent. There are significant difficulties in rural areas and the Government are not keeping up with that need, which is increasing.