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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 3rd November 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party 10:39 am, 3rd November 2009

I congratulate Tim Farron on securing this excellent debate, which has been of far better quality than some housing debates I have attended in this Chamber. I also congratulate the Minister, whose constituency of Stevenage neighbours my own, on her new role; it is not an easy job because the problems of rural housing, as hon. Members have explained this morning, are enormously complex and acute.

I will not spend too much of the precious time available repeating the figures that have been mentioned this morning, other than to emphasise the extremeness of the position. Six of the 10 least affordable places to live in Britain are in rural areas, the second least affordable being the south-west. There really is an emergency out there, and we have only seen the crisis get worse over the past few years.

If the problem is big, what are the solutions? I was struck by the contribution made by Mr. Drew, who spoke of the need for the Government to get more stuck in and produce more homes. He argued for a more top-down, centralised approach to housing. I did not agree with that part of his speech because it strikes me that such an approach has not worked over the past few years, but I most certainly agreed with his second point about community land trusts, particularly the excellent one in Stroud, which I shall talk about in a moment.

I also acknowledge the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend Mr. Turner, who described in detail the problem of unaffordable housing for the inhabitants of the island, many of whom are forced to move off the island to find somewhere reasonable to live. That problem was reflected in different ways by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for St. Ives (Andrew George).

I turn to some of the solutions. We all agree that community land trusts could provide a large part of the solution, but the problem is that very little is actually happening. Some time ago I met Sir Bob Kerslake, shortly after he had become chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, who proudly told me that his ambition was for the HCA to help deliver four community land trusts by the end of this year-only four. I do not know whether it is on track to meet that target and I will be sure to ask him when we meet this afternoon, when I shall also ask whether one of those trusts is in Stroud. It seems to me that the goal is nothing short of pathetic.

The idea of community land trusts has been around for decades. Indeed, I set up a community land trust taskforce last year to try to find out why they had not succeeded, and a contributor to the taskforce explained that he had first stumbled across the idea 30 years ago. It is a mystery why things have taken this long, which the taskforce is unravelling. One of the problems, as the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, is that even after a collection of people have got together, decided on an idea and gone out to consult the public, other bureaucratic obstacles get in the way. He said that can lead to a 10-year delay, but I can tell him that the village of Essendon in my constituency has been waiting for between 20 and 30 years for a few houses to be redeveloped, even though they are nothing more than asbestos-ridden, post-war bungalows that are falling down and derelict. I went to a village meeting in Essendon to listen to local concerns about housing and assumed that people might talk about the Government's plan to stuff 10,000 to 15,000 homes nearby, but in fact they wanted to talk about the lack of affordable housing in the village and explain to me how long they had been waiting for something to be done.

Having visited Stroud, Rock in Cornwall and most of the pilot community land trust schemes across the country, we developed the idea of local housing trusts, which would be like community land trusts. Land would be locked in perpetuity for the benefit of the local community, answering local need for affordability. However, there would be one significant difference: a local housing trust would be able to grant itself planning permission to build. During the last few months of this Government, will the Minister give serious consideration to enabling local housing trusts to go out there and do their job?

Having visited places across the country, I am convinced that there would be a large demand once local people are given the direct power to say, "This is our community and we are not prepared to sit back and wait for someone else to ride to our rescue, because we know what needs to happen here", rather than having to rely on a regional spatial strategy that orders them to place the housing in a particular area or wait for the local authority to sign off on the development of just a dozen houses in a village. The land might come from the parish, the local authority, a benefactor or a landowner, or people might have to buy the land themselves, but because that land would be on an exception site, the only buyer in town would be a local housing trust, so one would expect the houses on it to be built at a reasonable, in-between price.

That is how we can start to solve the affordable housing crisis in our rural communities. It would allow people to reinvigorate the parishes and villages that are suffering from falling populations and finding as a result that the village school cannot stay open, that the post office closed two years ago or that they cannot sustain a GP surgery. Putting people back in control and allowing them to innovate for their own communities is far more likely to achieve a solution than the vast array of quangos set up by the Government.

I invite the Minister, in her response, to take some of those ideas on board. It cannot make sense to have regional spatial strategies with a whole string of quangos under them, such as EEDA, CEDA, ERA, SERA, NERA, DERA and many more besides, none of which has delivered the kind of housing numbers we require, particularly in our rural areas. I invite her not only to match the idea of local housing trusts, with power to grant themselves planning permission, but to match our policy of allowing local areas to keep the council tax. They should keep not only the council tax that is collected at the moment, but 100 per cent of it, pound for pound, matched in addition for every single new home that is built for a period of six years. To ensure that sufficient numbers of affordable homes are built, they should keep 125p for every pound of council tax collected. That is the way to incentivise local communities and ensure that they get something back from regeneration and additional housing. If we put local people in control, trust them and give them the power, tools and incentives, I guarantee that more homes will be built. If the Minister will not do that, we will certainly be happy to.