Skip to main content

Holiday Accommodation

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to Mr Speaker for allocating time for this debate, which I will use to address two connected issues that I am sure are important not only to my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey but to a number of other constituencies with similar demographics. The first issue relates to how we provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. The second issue is how we can help to revive the holiday homes industry on the Isle of Sheppey to reinvigorate the local economy, while at the same time bringing the current stock of holiday homes closer in line with actual need.

I want to deal with the latter issue first. There are more than 7,000 holiday homes in my constituency, mainly mobile homes and chalets. Much of that accommodation is of a high standard, although very little of it is currently suitable for occupation all year round. However, some of the accommodation in my constituency, particularly some of the chalets, is of a very poor standard and is simply not fit for use in the 21st century, even for a one or two-week stay.

I am keen to see a revival in the holiday industry on Sheppey. There is much to commend the island as a holiday destination. It is steeped in history, with one of the oldest churches in the country and an abbey that can be traced back to the birth of Christianity. There is also the recently restored Shurland hall. It was built by Sir Thomas Cheyne, and it was where Henry VIII dallied with Anne Boleyn during their ill-fated marriage. In addition, Sheppey has a rich naval heritage and is also the birthplace of British aviation. Furthermore, the island has some fantastic natural habitats, including the Elmley bird sanctuary, which forms part of one of the most important wetlands in the United Kingdom. Sheppey is easy to get to, with good road and rail links, and it is close to London, Canterbury and Dover.

I make no apology for sounding like a travel agent, Mrs Main. I am proud of Sheppey, and I want to encourage more visitors to the island, so that they can share its riches. To cater for those tourists, we need to maintain a stock of good-quality holiday homes. However, the holiday industry in my constituency needs support and flexibility, if it is to act as the catalyst to reinvigorate the economy of Sheppey, particularly on the eastern end of the island, which has experienced a steady decline in fortunes during the past 30 or 40 years. At this point, I declare an interest, because eastern Sheppey is the area where I cut my political teeth, representing its people on both Swale borough council and Kent county council.

The support for the island’s holiday industry must come from local and national Government. Nationally, I hope that the Government will introduce regeneration measures to help the coastal communities on Sheppey, which contain some of the most deprived wards in the country. Locally, we are looking for support from Swale borough council, which until four years ago offered a 50% council tax discount to the owners of second homes or holiday chalets. That discount has dropped to just 10%, and I hope that in time, as the economic climate improves, the 50% discount can be reinstated, because such financial support would encourage chalet owners to upgrade their properties.

In addition to support, holiday park owners also want more flexibility in the length of time that they are allowed to stay open. I know that Swale borough council is actively reviewing whether the current eight-month occupancy period, which has been imposed on many holiday parks, can be extended to 10 months. I commend my colleagues on the council for undertaking that review, because the extra two months of occupation could make a real difference to the viability not only of the holiday parks themselves but of the many local businesses that rely on holidaymakers for their trade.

I am realistic enough to know that the holiday industry on Sheppey will never return to its 1950s heyday, because we live in a different world. People can now have a two-week holiday in Greece or Turkey for the same price as a week in Britain. Even the Isle of Sheppey cannot guarantee that the sun will shine during a British summer. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we must recognise that we no longer need 7,000 holiday homes to cater for the number of holidaymakers whom we can expect to attract.

That leads me back to my first issue, which is how we can provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. We can go some way towards answering that question by bringing our holiday-home stock more in line with current needs and allowing some development on the land that is released.

The vast majority of our excess capacity holiday homes are located in rural areas. Subject to local approval, which is vital, some of the poorest-quality chalets could be redeveloped to provide good-quality, affordable, all-year-round accommodation, such as the bungalows found on the Parklands Village development in my own constituency.

The irony is that although the Parklands Village homes were built to full building regulations and energy efficiency standards, the home owners can only live there for 10 months of the year and have to find temporary accommodation for the other two months. As I have said before in the House, such a situation is both perverse and ludicrous. Of course, any proposed development would be subject to normal planning and building regulations, which would include consideration of the highways implications and a requirement to provide the necessary infrastructure to support such development.

The problem is that some local planning authorities are loth to grant planning permission for the development of all-year-round housing on holiday sites, insisting that the land on which parks that close down are located must revert to rural status. A solution would be for the Government to classify as brownfield land redundant, out-of-use holiday home parks.

Five identifiers are used to define brownfield land: previously owned land which is now vacant; land that has vacant buildings; land and buildings that are derelict; other previously developed land or buildings that are currently in use but that have been allocated for development in the adopted plan or that have planning permission for housing; and other previously developed land or buildings, where it is known that there is potential for development.

Holiday home parks might be included in any one of those categories. However, explicitly including holiday park homes as a sixth identifier would leave planning officers with absolutely no room for doubt. Such a policy would not solve the housing problem that we inherited from the previous Government, but it might go some way to providing more affordable homes and perhaps ensure that young people in my constituency can afford to clamber on to the first rung of the housing ladder.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on bringing to the Chamber his understandable concerns on two linked issues. I will do my best to give him some comfort on at least part of what he has to say. I am not sure whether this is an interest that I need to declare, but shortly before he was born, I had a holiday on Sheppey. I have been there, and I expect that somebody bought me the T-shirt.

I am sure that we both wish that that were the case. I have a recollection of the island and its unique character. I have not had the opportunity to go back, which I am sure will upset my hon. Friend. As he has said, times have moved on and he has painted an eloquent picture of the challenges faced by Swale borough council and locally elected representatives, as well as the challenges that he faces as the Member of Parliament.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate and wish him many happy returns for tomorrow. Important points have been made not only about the importance of affordable housing, but about protecting the green belt. The Minister has mentioned the issue of other authorities. The issue with affordable housing in my area of York is very similar to that faced by my hon. Friend. The real problem is that we are not getting development going, and it is the affordable housing thresholds, which are being imposed through the planning process, that are causing developers not to bring land forward. A 50% affordable housing threshold means that 50% of nothing is nothing. Does the Minister think that reducing the threshold might lead to more affordable housing throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I will do my best to give him some assurance, but I will come to that in a moment.

I want to start with the wider context. We the Government are certainly committed to a major upswing in housing to meet Britain’s housing needs. I think that it is well understood in the Chamber that the level of household formations is approximately twice that at which new homes are being provided, and that is clearly challenging for us. There is an urgent need for low-cost, affordable homes for sale and for rent. The Government’s comprehensive spending review announced proposals to introduce a social and affordable housing programme and, by tackling the overall, macro-economic situation, the Government are strongly committed to creating an environment in which the private sector can flourish as well. We want greater stability in the housing market and house price rises to be more in line with earnings growth.

We have put in place a number of policies that are explicitly designed to generate that investment. The new homes bonus scheme will be a powerful and simple incentive for local authorities and communities to increase their aspirations for housing growth. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey had to say about the council tax discounts that have been applied on Sheppey. That is not, of course, a direct generator of new investment, but I want to assure him that the level of discount is a matter for the borough council to determine, and that it is not prescribed by this House.

My hon. Friend asked about a number of other things relating to the current management of the holiday home stock on the island. He drew attention to the fact that the borough council is considering whether to change the planning conditions on the requirement of residence from eight to 10 months a year. That is a matter for the planning authority to decide, and it has the flexibility to do that. Again, it is not subject to national rules and restrictions in so doing.

May I add to the various comments made by my hon. Friends? I represent an area of south-west Wales that is heavily dependent on the holiday industry, and I wonder whether we are missing something. Will the Minister comment on the report of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which the previous Government, to their credit, put in place? It made the point that other hon. Members have made about the flexibility of planners and how some of them might not be as flexible as they could be—

Thank you, Mrs Main. I understand the points that are being made and I hope that my hon. Friend will get some comfort when I address the changes to the planning system, which are currently being discussed by the Committee that is considering the Localism Bill.

As I was saying, the borough council has the flexibility to decide what planning conditions it imposes on both existing and projected new developments. Such flexibility already exists in the current planning regime. I will say in a moment how I believe the measures that we have announced in the Localism Bill—should they find favour with the House—will increase the flexibility of local planning authorities to deliver what my hon. Friends, now numbering three in this debate, are really asking for.

We do not consider that holiday caravans are the right way to increase the provision of low-cost housing, and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was advocating that. We would certainly appreciate any planning authority that took the view that the accommodation as it is at the moment would not be suitable for that use. In deciding whether an area should be developed or redeveloped for housing, any planning authority would want to take into account not just the site itself, but, as my hon. Friend said, issues relating to infrastructure, services, flooding and so on. All such matters should be considered by any planning authority when looking at the suitability of a site. They would have an encouragement via the new homes bonus to do so, which would bring them the equivalent of six times the annual council tax for that property as an un-ring-fenced, upfront payment—as a reward or a bonus for increasing their housing stock.

My hon. Friend said that the current planning frameworks make it difficult for applications on surplus holiday sites to succeed. There is definitely good news available in the planning system that we have set out in the Localism Bill. We are taking away the top-down prescription of what can and cannot be done. It will now be the case that if the Isle of Sheppey, or some part of the Isle of Sheppey, decided that it was appropriate for that community to have its own neighbourhood plan, it would be free to develop such a plan and reach such views as it saw fit about how the development should proceed. Although that would have to be within the constraints of the borough local plan, it would not be constrained by huge, thick volumes of national guidance.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made the point to the House when introducing the Localism Bill that the current planning guidance exceeds in number of words the combined works of Shakespeare. That is clearly a ridiculous amount for any planning authority to take account of and it unduly and unreasonably restricts the capacity of local communities to determine their own fate.

I commend the provision of neighbourhood plans in the Localism Bill as a way forward for the island and for all the different communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course they cannot discount the issues of traffic, they must take account of some of the broader strategic issues, and there will still be the national planning framework, which will provide overall guidance in relation to the country as a whole. None the less, local communities will have a far greater capacity to decide what factors are relevant when considering applications and what factors should be discounted. The sixth identifier that my hon. Friend talked about will rapidly become redundant because the neighbourhood plan will have supremacy—if I may use that phraseology. I believe that the changes to the planning process that we are initiating will provide him with the capacity to tell his constituents that the prosperous, regenerated and renewed island that they—and he—want to see can indeed come to pass.

The message that I have delivered for the Isle of Sheppey is, I believe, just as relevant for York, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) that he will have to have discussions with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. The powers in the Localism Bill will be made available to the Welsh Assembly through provisions in the Bill, and the Assembly may, if it chooses, adopt them and then adapt them to the circumstances in Wales.

I think that I have addressed all the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, but if he feels that I have not, I will be ready to take an intervention. I hope that it is felt that I have given him a helpful answer, which is what was intended.

Sitting adjourned.