[Robert Key in the Chair] — Affordable Housing (Rural Areas)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 3rd November 2009.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Shadow Secretary of State (Environment) 9:30 am, 3rd November 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate affordable housing in rural areas. I shall start on a controversial note, and say that I am happy to take on any Member, here or not, in defence of my assertion that Westmorland and Lonsdale is the most attractive constituency in the country.

It is my privilege to represent a vast part of the Lake district, large parts of the Yorkshire dales, and vast swathes of south Cumbria that are so attractive that they could not find a national park for them. I am a fourth-rate fell runner in those lands, and my normal running route takes me to the top of Heversham head. At that vantage point, I often stop to compose myself and take in the view. From there I can see nearly all of my patch. It is stunning. One can completely understand why people who have plenty of brass should choose to join us and move to the area. We are delighted that people should choose to move to our area, to work or to retire, but I put in a bid for today's debate because of my concern for those who have to move away. They go not out of choice but because they have no choice, and they leave communities much the poorer for their departure.

The average wage in South Lakeland, the district in which my constituency is based, is £19,000 a year. The average house price is just over £250,000. Responsible lenders give mortgages of up to three and a half times annual salary, but the average house price is 13 times the average wage. The average family is stuffed-I apologise, Mr. Key, if that is an unparliamentary word-when it comes to buying a home.

South Lakeland district council has 4,000 council properties and an extra 1,500 housing association homes to call upon. There is a waiting list with 4,000 names on it; it is growing all the time as a result of repossessions and the ever-widening gap between incomes and house prices. At that rate, most people on the list will never find a social rented property. I said that there were 4,000 council homes; once upon a time we had 13,000 in the South Lakeland area, but some clever so-and-so decided to sell them off without replacement. Council houses built for local families are now on the market for as much as £400,000. It is depressing, dare I say it, that we are 12 and a half years into-and very likely six months from the end of-a Labour Government, but have seen no action to undo the outrageous ideological assault made on rural communities by the last Conservative Government.

The lack of affordable housing exists nationwide, in urban as well as in rural areas, but the problems that affect rural Britain are acute, and they require action specific to the needs of rural communities. The National Housing Federation reported in July that residents in rural areas faced the prospect of waiting more than a lifetime for new affordable homes. The report stated that rural housing waiting lists had hit a record level of 750,000. However, the rate at which new affordable homes are being built means that families in the 10 most challenged local authorities would have to wait an average of 90 years before getting a home, and in one case a staggering 280 years. That figure, of course, is academic, but it is none the less depressing.

For people like me who live in and have the privilege of representing part of rural Britain, it is clear that Government policy largely fails to address its specific needs and challenges. Hon. Members will, I am sure, be familiar with the Rural Coalition, which represents non-partisan groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Country Land and Business Association. The Rural Coalition states:

"For 50 years or more, policy has undervalued the countryside and failed to meet the needs of rural communities...the result is starkly apparent. Rural communities have slowly but relentlessly become less and less sustainable and less and less self-sufficient."

I agree with that statement. As the Rural Coalition says, that is not just the result of the present Government's failure; it is a failure of government across the board over half a century. It falls to us to reverse that.

I return to South Lakeland's housing waiting list, which is 4,000 strong. Where do 4,000 families go while waiting for affordable homes? Well, they live in often overcrowded and inappropriate private rented accommodation. I was recently in Kendal knocking on doors and I came across a household of eight people-three families-squeezed into a two-and-a-half bedroom house. We have a hostel in Kendal that is clean and well run. It was built to provide temporary accommodation for young single people. Today, it is crammed to the gills with families, who are there indefinitely. It is heartbreaking.

Many of those 4,000 families simply disappear, especially the young ones, and the community loses its lifeblood as a result. What is more, the housing waiting list is just the tip of the iceberg; countless more families never apply to get on the list because they do not see the point. As a result of the affordable housing crisis, we in south Cumbria lose 30 per cent. of our young people each year, and they do not come back. The average age in Britain is 39, but in South Lakeland it is 50. That evidence shows that the community is losing its youth because it cannot house it.

The social rented option is the quickest and most reliable way of providing affordable homes, but it is not the only way. The council in South Lakeland has led the way by enabling the building of shared ownership and shared equity properties, and other affordable homes for purchase. However, as the recession bites, the very people for whom those homes were built are being excluded.

The village of Holme in my constituency recently gained a new development, yet several of the affordable homes built there stand empty because the banks, including those that the taxpayer now owns, refuse to give mortgages on properties with an affordability restriction on them. Those banks that will do so demand a minimum 30 per cent. deposit. If people could afford a 30 per cent. deposit, they would not be in the market for an affordable home. My first request is this: will the Minister agree to ask the Chancellor to instruct the taxpayer-owned banks to lend responsibly, to ensure that people seeking to buy affordable homes are given the same mortgage deal as any other buyer?

I juxtapose the 4,000 families on the waiting list with the 6,000 or 7,000 properties in my constituency that lie empty for most of the year. I am talking, of course, about the real problem of excessive second home ownership in rural areas. I am not talking about holiday lets that add real value to the local tourism economy, but about properties that just lie empty for most of the year. I was in Chapel Stile in the Langdale valley the other day. The last time that a property in that village was bought by someone who actually chose to live there was 20 years ago. Every property bought since the 1980s was purchased as an investment, or a bolt hole. Meanwhile, local families look on in despair. Where are they meant to go? In Coniston, 50 per cent. of properties are second homes. In Dent, the figure is 50 per cent., and in Troutbeck it is about 60 per cent. In the Langdales it is around 70 per cent.