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Housing (Wales)

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Heppell]

7.42 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable concern to me and of great concern to my constituent, Mrs. Tolfree, and her sister. It is a case in which I believe there has been serious maladministration by Gwynedd county council in its operation of section 157 of the Housing Act 1985. It concerns a property called Argraig at Maentwrog in Gwynedd.

My constituent's parents purchased the property from the council in 1983. It is a small house on a hillside, accessible by 56 steps from the street and by a small track that runs behind the village. Following the death of the second of her parents in 2001, the first parent having died in 1988, Mrs. Tolfree and her sister, having no further need for the property, wished to sell it. They placed it on the market in March 2002.

When the property was sold by Merioneth council in 1983, it was made subject to a covenant under the Housing Act 1980, as amended by section 157 of the Housing Act 1985. This measure was designed to ensure that, in national parks or other rural areas where scope for new building is very limited, local people should not be deprived of housing by second homes and holiday cottages, or by an excessive number of people moving in for their retirement. It presumably did not bother the council in 1983 because it was happy to sell the property as a house to be used during someone's retirement.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that I have no dispute with the principles underlying that. They are applied in Wales and they are also applied in parts of England, including the Lake district, and other locations.

The Act provides for local rules to be issued, and Gwynedd council has published its own. They are rather unusual in my view. First, they provide that if there is an application to buy the property from someone whose place of work or principal home is within 20 miles of the property or in the county of Gwynedd, the covenant restricting the sale will not apply. A local connection to the proposed purchaser is satisfied if there is also a relationship to a parent, child, brother or sister. There is also an armed forces provision, and a further provision asking whether a housing association might be interested in taking over the property. I should make it clear that in this case the housing association has no interest in taking over the property whatsoever.

Seven criteria are to be applied: first, the local connection of the prospective buyer; secondly, the lack of houses for local people in the area where the house is situated; thirdly, the price compared with that of similar houses: fourthly, the length of time that the property has been on the market; fifthly, the reasons for applying and selling; sixthly, any effects on the local community; and, seventhly, and perhaps most importantly, the Welshness of the area and the benefit to the community. It is clear that that list gives the council's area committee, which deals with such matters, considerable powers of discretion, which must be exercised fairly and properly.

When the property was first marketed, a purchaser came forward in April 2002. The council was informed and the intended purchasers completed a questionnaire. The council responded in June, refusing the application to sell to them, claiming that in its opinion the property would be used only as a summer home, even though the purchaser disputed that vigorously. The matter was not even put before the area committee until pressure was put on the council. A repeat attempt in July led the area committee to reject the application on the 13th of that month. No reason was given. On 26 July, following pressure from her solicitors, my constituent was told that the purchasers did not comply with the guidelines. No further indications were given.

In August last year, a new purchaser appeared. The property was originally marketed at about £75,000. The purchaser offered £71,500, later reducing that to £60,000 because the property was already showing signs of damp and dry rot, having been unoccupied for nine months. My constituent and her sister accepted that offer in September. The questionnaire was filled in. It is noteworthy that the purchasers wanted to work locally, and the husband had a job lined up at Minffordd. The couple were Welsh, but were not Welsh-speaking. Significantly, in filling out the form—this is the first time that I have seen such a form—they felt constrained to say:
"The people who speak Welsh in our family are mainly our older relatives, but being taught in a Welsh school, myself and a lot of close family members … speak Welsh on a basic level."
One set of family members came from Tredegar in south Wales and the other from near Wrexham. The couple wished to install themselves in the house and live and work in the area. By then, it was clear, as I said earlier, that local housing associations were quite uninterested in the property, which was unsuitable for their needs. No local purchasers had expressed any interest in the property whatsoever.

On 17 October 2002, again after a delay when pressure was applied to the council to respond, it refused permission to sell and said that
"it was felt that the circumstances of the proposed purchasers were insufficient to enable the Council to approve the application, in particular the length of time that they had been connected with the area."
On that basis, no one would be able to move into an area at all—until one is there one will not have a local connection.

At that stage, my constituent contacted me, and I wrote to the Secretary of State in early November, outlining the facts and expressing my grave concern at what appeared to be the council's arbitrary and capricious actions. I thought that such actions were unreasonable, given the lack of local interest either by a purchaser or housing association, the nature of the property, the time that it had been left empty, and the problems experienced by my constituent. I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for the speed with which he took the matter up and for his response. He wrote in one of his letters to me:
"I share your views on the local council's reluctance to sell this property as being a bit strange."
I took it from the letter that the right hon. Gentleman was being characteristically diplomatic. He also sought on my constituent's behalf to influence the council to change its view. He corresponded with the council and also, I believe, with the Welsh Assembly.

It was all to no avail. The council refused. I corresponded with the council as well, and it told me that it was refusing because there was a lack of local connection. It repeated that mantra.

The hon. Gentleman is highlighting the bigotry that prevails in the nationalist community towards people coming into Wales. [Interruption.] Would he like to respond to the suggestion made by the previous leader of the nationalist party, Dafydd Wigley, who believed that people moving to Wales should be forced to pay twice the going rate for properties? He said:

"No matter how wealthy people are, they are not going to pay £100,000 for a house worth £50,000."

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I shall come on to my views about the council in a moment, if he will bear with me.

There has been one further development. In February this year, a lady resident in Machynlleth—not exactly a million miles away—who had been long resident there indicated that she wished to buy the property. However, she, too, was turned down in April because of the absence of a local connection, even though the property was being offered to her at a reduced price.

We are now 14 months from the original marketing of the property. In the past week I have been told that another purchaser may be available, but of course we have no idea what the council's response may be. The property is deteriorating, the interior walls are coated in mould, and it is difficult to keep it heated, maintained and insured. It is a problem for the executor, a problem for the beneficiaries and a source of deep anxiety to them.

I hope the Minister will agree that what has happened is intolerable. Section 157 of the Housing Act is being grossly misused. Its intention is laudable: to protect local people and give them the opportunity to obtain housing themselves or through a housing association. I do not quarrel with that, because of the difficulty of providing housing in a national park. It was not the intention of the legislation to keep properties empty for 14 months and to deny access to incomers wishing to live and work in the area when housing is available for them, and/or to destroy the value of the property, which, as I said, is causing my constituents great anxiety.

Such a policy appears to be at the very least grossly incompetent. The incompetence is all the more manifest as the matter has been brought to the attention of the council on repeated occasions, not only by me but by the Secretary of State, who seems to be of the same mind that the situation should not be allowed to continue. It also raises in my mind, particularly when I look at the questionnaire that I mentioned earlier, with the questions that it asked and the way in which the applicant felt constrained to answer, the possibility that a local system of apartheid is in operation for local political advantage. I very much hope that that is not the case.

When I consider what is happening to the value of the property, it also raises in my mind the possibility of the rather unpleasant taint on the local authority that an eventual local purchaser could greatly benefit financially from obtaining a property at a severely undervalued price—suitably beholden, I suppose, to the council and its representatives. I hope I am wrong in allowing such a thought to enter my mind, but if I may say so to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who intervenes repeatedly from a sedentary position, those who exercise discretionary powers that are given to them should take great care to view themselves as others might view them in the context of the powers that they have. Therefore it is particularly important that in such circumstances they should be seen to be acting fairly throughout. Keeping a property empty for a long time does not seem to me to serve anybody's interest.

Out of courtesy, I kept the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy informed of this matter from the outset, but he showed not the slightest interest, and considered the actions of the council perfectly appropriate. I have to say that I completely disagree with him.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the language provisions were accepted by the Welsh Office, and have been adopted by the National Assembly for Wales? In opening his speech he used the word "maladministration". If that genuinely represents his belief, I urge him to advise his constituent to send the matter to the ombudsman without delay. I agree that we do not want properties to stand empty, but as for his scattergun approach, accusing a decently run council of maladministration, he should follow that along, put his money where his mouth is and give the case to the ombudsman, so that he can find out.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the council may not be as well run as others suggest, because keeping the property empty for 14 months means that several hundreds of pounds in council tax has been lost to the community?

I entirely agree.

I hope to hear from the Minister about the specific issue, and about what he and the Secretary of State will do—if he agrees with me, which I think he might—to try to move things along and get Gwynedd council to act properly, without recourse to the ombudsman. However, I feel that there is also a wider issue, about which the Secretary of State should be concerned.

As I said, I believe that the Housing Act has an important role to play in helping rural communities, but it has to be viewed in the context of the Human Rights Act 1998, and when I look at the sections that deal with the local identity of the area, and the way in which the guidelines are set out, I wonder whether that complies with the first protocol to article 1, on the protection of property—
"Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions"—
and article 14, which expressly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of, among other things,
"sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion".
I do not say that that should vitiate or lead to the abolition of section 157 of the 1985 Act, but it needs to be viewed, and properly applied, in that context.

May I say to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy that the danger is that if that does not happen, the provision will fall foul of the Human Rights Act, and at that stage the Government, the hon. Gentleman himself, and others who seek to protect rural communities will find that the abuse of that protection by a local authority such as Gwynedd means that it will be withdrawn? I do not wish to see that happen, but the present situation troubles me very much.

I have already raised the matter with the Secretary of State, and I would be grateful if the Minister could give some indication of how his right hon. Friend views the compatibility of that provision with the Human Rights Act. I feel that there are ways in which it comes, to say the least, very close to the edge.

For example, I appreciate the fact that Wales has particular features, but if in one of the villages in my constituency a provision was used to discriminate in favour of Englishness, and that was used to prevent the Asian community in Slough from moving into my constituency, I think that the Commission for Racial Equality would be extremely exercised about that—and rightly so. I therefore hope that local protection can be seen to apply impartially to all people, irrespective of their origins, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

7.59 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on securing this debate on a subject that is obviously causing considerable distress to one of his constituents. Of course, it is primarily a local authority matter, but I compliment him for the assiduous attention that he is paying to the interests of the people whom he represents.

At the heart of this matter is the fact that the qualifying tenants in rural areas have a right to buy—a policy introduced by the hon. Gentleman's party when it was in government. However, landlords have power to impose a covenant restricting resale in rural areas under section 157 of the Housing Act 1985. That power predates the 1985 Act, which consolidated earlier legislation introduced under the Conservative Administration.

When right to buy was introduced in 1980, the then Secretary of State for Wales made an order designating many communities in the former counties of Dyfed and Gwynedd as rural areas for the purposes of section 157. Other areas were designated in rural parts of England. The hon. Gentleman's constituents inherited a property in the village of Maentwrog that was formerly purchased under right to buy. Maentwrog is located in the Snowdonia national park. When disposing of property in 1983 under right-to-buy regulations, the local authority decided to impose a restrictive covenant under section 157.

A covenant can operate in two ways. The owner can be required to sell to someone who has lived or worked in the area for the previous three years. Alternatively, for a period of 10 years, the property may not be disposed of unless the landlord is given the opportunity to repurchase at market value. Under section 157, the covenants can be applied in the following areas: national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas designated as rural by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. Although a covenant imposed under section 157 binds the purchaser and his or her successors in title, it is open to the local authority to remove that covenant at any time if it wishes.

Following problems in the rural economy and an increase in house prices, concerns grew about the ability of local people in rural areas to buy affordable housing. That is perfectly understandable. In response, the National Assembly for Wales consulted in 2001 about extending the list of designated areas for the purposes of right to buy. The criterion proposed for designation was that communities should have a population density of two persons or fewer per hectare. Following the receipt of comments and further consultation, the Assembly decided also to include communities with populations of 3,000 or fewer. It also decided to exclude some communities that met the criteria, but were considered by local authorities to be areas without significant problems in access to affordable housing. The purpose of designating rural areas was to assist local people in accessing such housing. A new order was debated by the Assembly in January and came into effect on 7 February this year. The section 157 powers have been used selectively to prevent local hardship and are not seen as simply a means of excluding migration from beyond borders.

I certainly sympathise with the owners of the property and understand the distress that they experienced in their protracted attempts to sell, but Gwynedd council has acted fully within the letter of the law. It is for others to judge whether, in the present circumstances, it is acting in the spirit of the law, but it is certainly acting within the law itself. In fairness, the council's area committee has considered the issue on several occasions and indicated its willingness to reconsider lifting the covenant if circumstances change. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in communication with the council and has been seeking to persuade it to lift the covenant. On February 10, he wrote expressing disappointment that the housing committee did not see fit at that stage to lift the covenant, and I strongly support him in that respect.

There have been accusations that the authority has been racist in seeking to prevent an influx of English second-home buyers. I have no evidence of that, and I am sure that all hon. Members would be concerned if there were any such evidence in relation to this case. It has been suggested that the actions of the council may have been discriminatory and therefore contravened the European convention on human rights. What does the European convention on human rights actually say? Article 14, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, deals with the prohibition of discrimination. It states:
"The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status."
Article 14 works only to protect from different treatment in exercising other convention rights. It does not give a general right to protection from different treatment in all areas of life.

So what other articles might conceivably be involved in the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised? Article 8 covers the right to respect for private and family life. It says:

"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."
Article 8 is a "qualified" right, thus allowing some interference by the state. Interference must, however, have a clear legal basis, which is provided by section 157 of the Housing Act 1985. That said, as no one is living in the property, describing it as a home might be difficult to justify in terms of the way in which the European convention on human rights is applied in this case.

Article 1 of the protocol covers the protection of property. It states:
"Every natural or legal person is entitled to peaceful enjoyment of his possessions."
The state is, however, permitted to interfere with how property is used if the law specifically permits that and such interference is justified and proportional.

That is the nub of it, is it not? Any such interference that is provided for by the statute must be exercised reasonably and proportionately. As the Minister may agree, the nub of this matter is whether there has been reasonable and proportionate action by the council in denying the sale for a 14-month period.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I wrote to the council, as did my colleagues in the Assembly, to try forcefully to bring that home to it.

In an effort to attract local buyers, the price was recently lowered. An outside buyer appeared, and the local authority was asked to approve. Unfortunately, it rejected the proposal on the basis that insufficient time had elapsed since the price drop to permit serious local expressions of interest. More time has elapsed, and the area committee has the opportunity to reconsider.

It should perhaps be put on the record that although officially the price had been lowered, it had been lower since July last year. Anybody who rang up the estate agents would have been told, "It is not what appears in the window—the actual asking price is £60,000." A letter from the estate agents to the council explained that it deemed that the time that had passed was insufficient.

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's point, and I have no doubt that it will be brought to the attention of Gwynedd council in due course.

I hope that the area committee will now reconsider the matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will, of course, keep a watchful eye on developments. Meanwhile, the vendors have the opportunity to seek permission from the local authority to rent the property to non-locals, thus avoiding further deterioration and possibly establishing a local residency status for a potential future purchaser.

Before the Minister concludes, can he throw some light on the rather strange fact that the council appears to be discriminating not only against people who are not Welsh, but against people who are Welsh but are not quite as fluent in the Welsh language as they might like?

I cannot comment on that matter in this context, but it is something that all hon. Members would be concerned about.

I sympathise with the vendors' desire to resolve the issue as speedily as possible, and I sincerely hope that a local purchaser can soon be found to buy the property at the new asking price. Failing that, I hope that the area committee will feel able, within a reasonable time, to remove the covenant. Although it is right to use the right-to-buy legislation to protect local communities and to give local people the opportunity to acquire property in their home communities, ultimately we have to take a reasonable view of such matters. I hope that if no other alternative can be found, the council may be persuaded of the strength of the argument and remove the covenant so that the matter can be resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eight o'clock.