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Housing (North Yorkshire)

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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1.29 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the problems of housing in North Yorkshire. It is a broad topic and could cover a multitude of subjects, but as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows—I am delighted to see him here to reply to the debate—I wish to raise the specific problems experienced by my mainly rural constituents of finding suitable accommodation to buy or rent locally.

The problem has been aired in the House before, particularly in the last Session during the passage of the Local Government and Housing Bill. Yet it merits further attention because it is the single most pressing social problem for my constituents and has a particular impact on rural communities.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be aware of the nature of the problems in North Yorkshire. They are nothing new. There have always been population movements into particular areas. Once it was into the cities, then into the suburbs and now it is back into the countryside. Such movements have always created pressure on housing stock and difficulties for those who were living in the areas concerned to begin with. The problem has always been with us and will probably always be with us.

What is new, however, is the intensity of pressure on housing in areas such as the one I represent. In the 1980s the demand for homes in the environmentally attractive area of North Yorkshire soared. Greater wealth and improved transport allowed many people to move into the area, some for retirement, some for a second home and some for work. In addition, many cottages were turned into holiday homes.

In February when I was canvassing in the Richmond by-election I saw how whole villages closed down for the winter, with a large proportion of the housing stock unoccupied for many months of the year. It is principally the natural attractiveness of the dales and moors which has spurred this great demand for housing. Ironically, that natural attractiveness makes it impossible adequately to expand the supply.

Planning controls, particularly in the national parks which cover half of my constituency, are tight and have been tightened. Many local people have the money to build a house and even the land to build it on, but not the planning permission to do so. I would not argue for any general relaxation of planning controls. It is in the interests of the whole nation that our most attractive natural areas are preserved for future generations, but it is important for the nation to acknowledge the price paid and the trouble taken by the local residents. They want to make a living and bring up a family, and they love their surroundings, but they often ruefully reflect that a beautiful view does not pay bills. The price to be paid threatens to be high.

Lancashire polytechnic recently highlighted the scale of the problem in my constituency in a comprehensive survey of all households in Wensleydale. The work was carried out on behalf of the Wensleydale housing forum, to which I pay tribute. The survey confirmed what we already knew. Many people are moving into the Dales. Indeed, in the past 10 years one in three households has moved in. At the same time, local young people cannot find anywhere to live. Forty per cent. of households are of pensionable age and fewer than 20 per cent. include anybody between 16 and 25. The consequences of such changes can be both great and serious.

The effects on schools and public transport are predictable, as is the strain on health care. There is also the sometimes forgotten impact on the environment. The natural environment that people find so pleasant and attractive depends on the maintenance of upland farming. If the next generation of farming families cannot find anywhere to live, the impact on the environment will be serious.

I do not criticise anyone for wanting to live in or move into the area. Many of those who move in become among the most active local citizens. I should like the strains which have arisen to be recognised. Some people in my constituency have said that 95 per cent. of the local population cannot afford the average price of a small house in the Dales. That may be an exaggeration, but I do not think that it is a wild exaggeration.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me when I say that it is a distressing experience for people who were born in the area, brought up there, and who feel that they belong there, as they have friends and family in the area, to find that they are unable to get any accommodation there.

Many married couples in my constituency have to live in caravans on the premises or in the gardens of relatives. In far-flung rural areas people are not able to go to live in the town down the road instead of in a village or in the countryside. There is no town down the road. People who work in rural areas in many parts of my constituency could not commute from nearby towns because the towns do not exist.

One may say that there have always been problems, but when a whole generation faces the same difficulty throughout the country, the problem merits considerable attention. Some people may say, "So what? Populations shift, communities come and go. Industrial and urban communities have experienced great and traumatic changes in the past, so why do any special favours for rural areas?" My answer is that no one wants any special favours. My constituents are the last people to expect the Government to bail them out on any occasion.

Given the tight constraints imposed on the supply of local housing, people are entitled to seek ways to redress the balance in their favour. It is ridiculous to say that we have a free market in housing when the supply is so restricted. My constituents are entitled to ask whether we can interfere in the market to help rather than to hinder local people who understandably desire to live in their home area.

There are powerful moral, environmental and social reasons for active Government assistance to help to alleviate the problems. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister, does not need persuading that there are such reasons but it is worth placing them on record in the House.

It is all the more important for the Government to tackle the problem successfully because if they do not the Opposition will come up with silly, unworkable plans such as their scheme to require planning permission for the ownership of second homes. I warn the Opposition that with that scheme they risk enmeshing themselves in a bureaucratic tangle that has considerable implications for basic civil liberties. The Government bear a heavy responsibility to get things right so that the Opposition do not get the opportunity to wreak havoc.

To be fair, my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment in the past year have shown a refreshing awareness of the scale and the urgency of the problem. The noises that have emerged from the Government on rural housing have been positive I congratulate the Minister on the announcement last February about village sites for low-cost housing, on the great increase in funding for housing associations, on the constructive nature of the recently issued planning guidelines, and because they have generally recognised the existence of the problem. However, I think that the Minister will accept that the initiatives taken so far will take time to bear fruit, and the results may be limited in relation to the scale of the problem.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning yesterday gave a written answer on Housing Corporation funding and activity which was impressive. The Government are providing the means for a huge increase in the activities of housing associations. However, when the money has been shared out by region, county and district, the effects on the ground over the next few years could be small. I have been told by Hambleton district council, one of two districts in my constituency, that one £4 million scheme for 28 dwellings would take up its total share of housing association funding for two years.

Will my hon. Friend impress upon his colleagues at the Department of the Environment and at the Treasury that there is a need for continued increases in Housing Corporation funding as a high priority? He should consider carefully whether rural areas receive as much funding as the seriousness of their problems warrants.

The work of the housing associations is welcome, but inevitably, local authorities are still in the front line of dealing with the rural housing shortage. As planning authorities they unfortunately bear the brunt of local dissatisfaction with planning constraints. Responsible local authorities, such as those in my constituency, and throughout the rural areas of North Yorkshire, feel harshly constrained when they try to help to tackle the problems that I have described.

I am aware that, when I raise the subject of local authorities' role in housing provision, I am entering a political minefield. Their creation of great municipal estates was a disaster for Britain and must never happen again, but local authorities in North Yorkshire have a much more distinguished record on housing provision, to say nothing of many other things, and it seems to me that there are three ways in which they can help to tackle the local housing problem. In all of them, there is scope for the Government to be helpful to local authorities without unleashing a spending spree by the less responsible of them.

First, local authorities can seek restrictive agreements on the sale of properties to put people who already live locally at an advantage in the housing market. The Yorkshire Dales national park is making a major effort, which I warmly applaud, to place as many newly constructed properties as possible under section 52 agreements, which restrict subsequent sales. I know that the Government have encouraged the use of such agreements in certain circumstances and places. Such a policy must be applied sensitively, and sometimes flexibly, but it is a genuine and constructive attempt to help.

There is much confusion and concern about whether such agreements can be made to stick in planning appeals or in subsequent tests in the courts. Clearer guidance from the Government on this matter would be welcome, although I recognise that it is a complex topic and my hon. Friend the Minister might not be able to give a full and definitive answer today.

Secondly, there is potential for local authorities to provide land or low-cost developments by housing associations or other bodies. At the moment, local authorities are sometimes boxed in by restrictions and penalties if they try to help in that way, and some housing associations are worried that local authority assistance with many possible low-cost developments will never happen. I know that the Government have recently tried to help in this respect and that there is always a danger when local authorities are given financial freedom that that freedom will be abused by a minority of them. I should welcome clarification of the Government's stance and any additional leeway that can be given to local authorities with suitable land or available funding that could be used for rural development.

Thirdly, local authorities still have a limited role in providing housing directly. Forthcoming restrictions on the use of capital receipts are likely to reduce the scope of their activity. If so, that will not help the rural housing situation. Local authorities in my area have never been extravagant. They have never incurred huge debts, but their ability to use money to help the local community with its most pressing problem may be curtailed.

I know that this is another difficult area for Ministers, mainly because some local authorities have behaved very differently from those in my constituency, but can the Government study how changes in local authority regulations will affect rural housing, and will they try to find ways in which to replace the much-needed funding that may be lost? There may be other ways in which to assist with rural housing through changes in the planning process. I wonder whether the planning system could be reformed to encourage the private sector to think ahead about the provision of low-cost, local-need housing. Within the framework of a county structure plan, district councils could put forward bids looking, say, five years ahead, specifying how many of the planning permissions they grant should be reserved for local need or be part of low-cost schemes. Such provision would then be built more into the expectations of developers and the plans of housing associations.

There may be other ways in which to assist. It may be possible for the Government to give local authorities more advice about opportunities already available to them so that they take advantage of initiatives that the Government have already provided, which they may not do at the moment. Whichever of these suggestions turn out to be practical, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that there is a strong feeling in North Yorkshire and many other rural areas that more must be done and that pressure must be maintained on this subject.

This is a most pressing social and economic problem, although none of us is so naive to think that it will ever be solved to universal satisfaction. We can no more stop the high demand for homes in the most attractive parts of the country than we can stop the tide coming in. However, we can help those people who wish only for relatively modest accommodation in their own home areas and who want to see suitable sites and local money put to the best use in providing that accommodation. No one is asking for special favours. I ask only that people are given a fair chance instead of facing a planning system and housing market that are stacked permanently against them.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for choosing to use this short debate to raise an important subject. As he does so often, he spoke eloquently and persuasively today. Like my hon. Friend, the Government are concerned to maintain the viability of rural communities and we recognise that ensuring that there is affordable housing for local people to rent or buy has a key part to play in that.

Unlike some Opposition Members, we believe that people must be free to choose where they live. That means that we have no intention of forbidding long-distance commuters and second-home owners moving into rural areas. We recognise that it is important for the health of rural communities that they do not become merely dormitory villages for commuters or twilight homes for the elderly. It is crucial that affordable housing is available for those who live and work in rural areas, including people with limited incomes.

We are, indeed, the first Government to recognise the distinctly rural angle to public housing policy. In July 1988, we announced our rural housing initiative which for the first time set out a specific policy on low-cost housing in smaller villages. Since then we have been steadily putting in place a package of measures designed to tackle the problem.

We are increasing the level of investment in rural areas through housing associations, which have a major role to play in providing affordable housing both for rent and for low-cost sale, in particular shared ownership. We have significantly increased the public funding of the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust to support its work in providing start-up funds for rurally based housing associations. We have greatly increased the public funds available to the Housing Corporation, so enabling it to establish a special rural programme aimed at villages with a population of under 1,000. The Housing Corporation has recently brought forward increased targets under this programme which should be providing 1,500 homes a year for rent in small villages by 1992–93. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the enormous additional assistance that we are giving to housing associations in our programme over the coming years.

Most people in rural as in urban areas, including those on modest incomes, want to buy rather than rent a home. We are anxious to stimulate provision for low-cost home ownership, and have taken a series of measures to stimulate this under both housing and planning powers. Particularly important is the encouragement of shared ownership schemes, which enable people to part-rent part-buy, thus reducing the initial cost of purchase and thereby lowering the barriers of entry to owner-occupation. Most are offered by housing associations, some with public subsidy, others without, but there is no reason why commercial developers should not run similar schemes, and we are beginning to see signs of interest in that.

As my hon. Friend reminded the House, there was considerable debate during the passage of last Session's Local Government and Housing Bill about whether shared owners should be prohibited from "staircasing" to full ownership. I hope that we have now settled that debate. We entirely agree that shared ownership housing should be retained for local people in rural areas, but not by denying people the opportunity to become full owners of their homes. We are introducing a scheme whereby housing associations in certain rural areas will have a pre-emption right to repurchase former shared-ownership dwellings when the occupier moves on, thus ensuring their retention as low-cost housing. The Housing Corporation will guarantee to make the necessary funds available without reducing its rural rented or shared ownership programmes.

The corporation has also been invited to identify separately for the first time a rural element within its low-cost home ownership programme, to allow 250 approvals next year rising to 350 by 1992–93, a trebling of the present level. Of course, the figures are still small, but in a small village even one or two houses can make a substantial difference. We shall keep progress under close review in consultation with the Housing Corporation.

We have been encouraging local authorities to see their housing role as more of an enabling one, working with housing associations and the private sector to increase the supply of low-cost housing rather than developing new housing for rent or sale themselves. They can sponsor housing association schemes from their own resources to top up Housing Corporation provision, and if they choose, they can pay subsidies to private landlords. Next year's local authority housing investment programme allocations were announced earlier today. The average allocation is twice that for 1989–90 because of the better targeting that our new system permits. That is possible only because we still maintain some control over the amount of capital receipts that local authorities are able to spend. If we did not have that control, we would not be able to target our resources in the way that we intend next year. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that Richmond has been allocated 230 per cent. of its 1989–90 figure, and Hambleton has been allocated 203 per cent. They have done very well out of today's housing investment programme allocations.

We recognise that there is still a role for direct local authority provision, but we hope that authorities will operate through housing associations where possible. If a local authority gives land to a housing association for low-cost housing development, without retaining nomination rights, there would not normally be any consideration and, therefore, no requirement to set money aside to redeem debt. If it retains nomination rights, there is a non-monetary consideration; but my noble Friend the Paymaster General announced in another place on 24 October that we would provide in subordinate legislation that, in those cases, no debt redemption would be required. So, effectively, there is no deterrent to authorities making land available freely or cheaply for low-cost housing.

There is also no reason why low-cost rural housing should not be provided by private developers, whether alone or in conjunction with housing associations or local authorities, and whether for rent, shared ownership or direct sale, and we are starting to see signs of that happening.

We are taking steps to encourage landowners and developers to help in providing affordable housing for local people. As my hon. Friend said, in February 1989 we announced changes to planning rules, whereby local planning authorities may exceptionally release small pockets of land, not previously designated for housing, for low-cost schemes. The key point is that if the land does not have development value, because planning permission for general purpose housing would be refused, the houses can be let or sold at well below the market price, subject to conditions that ensure that they remain available to local people.

We would expect to see appropriate covenants between the landowner and the developer to ensure that the additional housing remains available for local needs, normally backed up by an agreement with the planning authority under section 52. It is very important that those guarantees are carefully worked out, but I do not share my hon. Friend's doubts about whether they are workable. Many authorities are already working with them very satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend mentioned that there are some local doubts about the legal basis on which low-cost housing would be reserved for local needs. From a planning point of view, it is important that authorities set out clear policies for low-cost housing in their local plans to provide a framework for individual decisions. My hon. Friend referred to a programme for the next five years. Such a programme can be contained within a local development plan produced by the local authority. That would help to reduce any risk of challenge on appeal. I shall give one example, although it is not in my hon. Friend's constituency, but it is nearby. The North Yorkshire authority, Ryedale, has already adopted such a policy on an interim basis, pending revision of its statutory local plan. The policy is very much along the lines that we want to see, and I hope that other authorities will follow their lead. We published guidance on local needs policies in our recent draft planning policy guidance note on housing, and we shall be issuing the final version of that guidance early in the new year.

If there are uncertainties about the legal mechanisms, I suggest that authorities contact the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust. It has been instrumental in promoting village housing schemes; it has produced an admirable guide to village housing; and it can point to cases where legal arrangements have been made to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned. I hope that, if my hon. Friend's local council has not contacted that organisation, our debate today will encourage it to do so.

The trust sees signs of widespread interest among private landowners in making small sites available for low-cost housing. A growing number of schemes are already under way. For instance, in Gloucestershire, an area of very high prices—probably even higher than in my hon. Friend's constituency and with equally strong pressures from outsiders—the Gloucestershire housing society has two shared ownership schemes under way on low-cost sites made available by private landowners, and several more in prospect. That illustrates what can be achieved by using the opportunities that the recent policy initiative has made available.

In giving new priority to low-cost rural housing, we are not in any way abandoning our concern to protect the rural environment. We are not abandoning our planning policies or our concern for countryside protection. But it is important to remember that not many new houses are needed in a village—just enough to ensure that children brought up in the village can set up house there if they want to. Many villages have small sites that could be used for two or three houses without any damage to the environment. Most rural district councils are concerned to protect the beauties of their landscape, and I am sure that they will go on being scrupulous about inappropriate development. But that does not mean that there should be no development whatever. It is especially important in rural areas that developers should pay close attention to the environmental aspects of what they plan to build.

The Government have thus responded to the growing concern about the lack of affordable housing in rural areas. Inevitably, our initiatives will take some time to have their full effect, but we have put in place the mechanism to deal with the problem, and that, coupled with increased public and private funding, should provide a significant boost to the output of low-cost housing.

Of course, it can always be argued that more needs to be done, but in the two years since we introduced the rural dimension to housing policy, we have made real progress, and I am encouraged by the reports that I am receiving of innovative housing schemes in a variety of rural areas. Needless to say, we shall be watching developments closely and considering whether further steps are necessary. If more resources are called for, we shall do our best to provide them, although we have to balance rural against urban needs. We are also working on research proposals to assess the effectiveness of our initiatives.

We have recognised a problem which previously went unacknowledged. We have put in place a policy for dealing with it and we have made significant additional resources available to back up that policy. There may be further to go, but I hope that my hon. Friend and the House acknowledge how far we have already come.

Our approach is a positive approach to get more houses built for those in rural areas who need them without imposing restrictions on other people's freedom to own what property they choose. We have spelt out clear and coherent policies that work within the framework of a planning system that protects the countryside without imposing planning controls where they are not justified. As usual, the Labour party is running to try to catch up with us.