Housing and Planning — [Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 3rd March 2020.

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Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 2:51 pm, 3rd March 2020

I commend my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien for securing this debate and for its importance, since no one in this Chamber or elsewhere would deny the need to ensure that we get the right kind of housing for the people who need it most.

While we look at how we get access to affordable housing, I will talk a little bit about how I believe local authorities are as much part of the problem as they are of the solution. I wonder whether the Minister could have a look at the charges that local authorities, including Cornwall Council, are applying to small businesses—small builders and small developers who are trying to solve the problem of ensuring that people have the housing they need.

There are high and, in my view, largely unnecessary charges demanded of small builders as a result of Cornwall Council’s policies. I am sure the same is true elsewhere. For example, just to get and complete the form on the Government website regarding section 106, Cornwall Council charges a legal fee of in excess of £1,200. It also demands that over £300 is spent on getting a market valuation to genuinely confirm that a property is affordable.

The community infrastructure levy, introduced by Labour in 2010 but not taken up by Cornwall Council until last year, can add hundreds of pounds per square metre to every house built, just adding to the cost of the affordable home to the person who is trying to get hold of it. The Minister has powers to scrap the community infrastructure levy, and the irony is that Cornwall Council has not yet fully determined how it will spend that money.

That is all in addition to the normal fees that a developer has to secure. Let us bear in mind that in places such as Cornwall, these are often very small builders, who are trying to train good people in the trade and make housing happen. These are additional fees to the fees demanded for planning approval.

Another thing that Cornwall Council has done recently, which on the face of it looks fantastic, is to increase the amount of money that can be charged for a property’s remaining empty—again, because the Government have allowed it. It is absolutely the right thing to do, but when someone comes along to purchase a property to bring it back into use, there is no exception made whatsoever, and they continue to pay that fee, additional to council tax, right until the house is lived in.

I have met the council and asked for that to be reviewed. The council says there are no exceptions, but the Minister may want to look at how councils are using the additional charge, which slows down the ability to bring homes back into use and improve their efficiency. It is right that the council apply the charge, but there must be some flexibility when people are trying to do something right by it.

Finally, the Minister may be aware that his Department has recently received guidance from No. 10 about how to ensure that affordable homes can be made available so that people can gain access to them. I have been working with an organisation called Rentplus; the rent-to-buy model is simple and provides homes, often on stalled sites, which my hon. Friend described earlier. The properties are built using pension funds, which we all know are not earning huge amounts of money for those investing in them.

The properties thus come at no cost to the taxpayer or to Homes England, but they provide houses for working families. Those working families get an affordable rent for as long as they need the home, and then they have the opportunity to buy it at a later point. It is called rent to buy and it is a really good model, but Cornwall Council refuses to allow it to be delivered in Cornwall. The group I am working with, Rentplus, has probably £200 million that it would like to spend in Cornwall. It identifies 800 homes that would have been built if it had been able to do so. Will the Minister look at the guidance that No. 10 has provided, to give Cornwall Council and others encouragement to use models such as rent to buy?