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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 3rd November 2009.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 10:28 am, 3rd November 2009

I am pleased to wind up for the Liberal Democrats. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tim Farron on the manner in which he introduced what is an extremely important debate for much, if not all, of rural Britain, given the pressures on the countryside and the difficulty of finding affordable housing for many local families. I will, of course, have to overlook his contentious opening remarks about the beauty of his constituency, particularly as mine covers west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which everyone knows is far better by comparison.

Although the statistics may vary in different parts of the country, certainly many of those mentioned relate to my part of the world as well, and we could read that across to many other areas. It is important that my hon. Friend's analysis of the problem concentrated on moving towards solutions, and that the debate has not simply been about raising a series of gripes and criticisms of Government policy-instead, it has concentrated on the way forward.

Mr. Drew mentioned the usefulness of the exceptions approach and the role of community land trusts, which are developing over time but which have to overcome enormous hurdles to achieve desired outcomes. Mr. Turner made an important contribution and emphasised the need to devolve greater planning powers to local communities and local authorities. The Government should listen to comments on that theme, to which I shall return.

My hon. Friend Mr. Williams made an important and telling contribution. He pointed out that although it is possible to work within the existing planning system, and although some local authorities, such as the former South Shropshire authority, were able to work with the limited tools available to them, there is no room for complacency. The difficulties that local authorities have to overcome to meet local housing need are enormous and, if anything, getting worse.

My hon. Friend Mark Williams emphasised the need for powers to be devolved-to Wales in his case. He also emphasised the important role of the banks and lending institutions in oiling the wheels to help the intermediate market properly take off. Those of us who have taken up casework in our areas and who are trying to assist such developments, particularly those with section 106 obligation agreements attached, have found that the lending institutions have not been particularly helpful.

I should declare an interest. Before I was elected to the House, I was a rural housing enabler before rural housing enablers were invented. I worked with a local charity in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and I was one of the first shareholders in the Cornwall Rural Housing Association, which was established in 1986.

I shall concentrate primarily on two issues, the first of which is the fundamental problem of the dead hand of centralised control and its impact on the ability of local authorities properly to address the need for affordable housing in their areas. Regional spatial strategies have been mentioned by several speakers. The Government's overall objective of building 3 million homes by 2020 is the totemic objective that drives policy. They simply ignore the need for the more subtle and localised approach that is required in many rural areas as they drive on with their top-down, prescriptive approach, which is inappropriate for rural areas. It is a tragedy for many rural areas that the Government are grinding on with a strategy that has failed successive Governments, who have simply attached housing development numbers to structure plans-now regional spatial strategies-in a manner that does not necessarily address the intricacies of the situation in rural areas.

The Government have confused the means with the end. The end is to meet housing need, and the means to do that is to build 3 million houses by 2020, but that target seems to have become the end of the Government's policy. They have become so obsessed with building those homes that they fail to recognise why they are building them. Let me give an example from my part of the world, Cornwall, where the housing stock has more than doubled in the past 40 years-indeed, we are the third-fastest growing place in the UK. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, I say that we are not nimbys; we are very much imbys. We have accepted and welcomed development in our fast-growing area, which is densely populated for a rural area. However, at the end of those 40 years of perpetual growth, the housing need situation for local people is worse.

One conclusion that we can draw from that example is that simply building houses is not the answer. People who follow housing policy in rural areas will recognise that being a one-club golfer-simply building more and more houses without recognising and adapting to the intricacies of the situation in rural areas-is part of the problem. I think we all recognise that there is a difference between land values in rural areas-between the value of agricultural land and the value of development land. That is the elephant in the room. The stroke of a pen at a local planning committee can increase the value of an acre of land from £3,000 or £4,000 to the equivalent of a lottery win. We know that the planning system is fuelled by greed rather than need, and that fundamental problem has made it extremely difficult to meet housing need. The need for a policy that meets housing need while retaining the integrity of the planning system and not simply turning it into a developers' charter is something that local authorities fully understand, and they need to take those considerations on board when they address these issues.

We need to expand the exceptions approach that the hon. Member for Stroud touched on. We also need to expand the intermediate market. Yes, the lending institutions need to be more on board than they are, but we also need to give local authorities the power and tools to address need. We cannot simply get around the problem by building cheap housing. I do not think that my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik meant or implied that we were talking about cheap housing for people who are in housing need. As my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith said a moment ago, in the past, local authorities knew about meeting local housing need and they built decent houses. What we are doing at the moment is cramming people into unfeasible spaces and creating ghettos for the future. We will regret that approach in years to come.

My second point is about second-home ownership, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and others. The issue is not about the politics of envy. We have achieved the removal of 40 per cent. of the 50 per cent. council tax discount that was costing the taxpayer about £200 million a year. It was clearly morally unacceptable to subsidise the wealthy for their second homes while thousands of rural folk could not afford a first home, so that subsidy had to be done away with. I remember a debate in this Chamber with Mr. Mullin, when he was a Local Government Minister. I had been carrying on about the issue for years, and I told him that all I had heard from the Government were complacent responses, and he said, "Well, I've been reading complacent responses for too long," and put his notes down. We had a little chat afterwards, and the policy changed thereafter. I would like Ministers to take that kind of initiative.

I have undertaken surveys of estate agents in my constituency for many years. The last one I conducted demonstrated that three times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. I am sure that many people will feel that that should be addressed, but before we can address the problems that second-home ownership creates, we must define what it is. The Government have always used the difficulty of defining second-home ownership as an excuse for not addressing the issue. We could use the capital gains tax register or references to form that definition. The recent exposure of MPs' misuse of the system of electing where their primary residence is demonstrates why that area of tax and tax record needs to be properly tightened. Using the electoral register, the council tax register, the business rate register and local knowledge, I believe it would be possible to define where second homes are. Once we had achieved that, we could bolt other policies on to it, such as tax and planning controls that would allow local authorities to determine whether someone should be allowed to turn a permanent residence into a second home. I hope that the Minister has been listening and that she will pass my comments to her ministerial colleagues, and that we will get some movement on the issue.