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Housing Availability: Ilfracombe

Volume 742: debated on Monday 11 December 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)8.53 pm

I am very proud to be Ilfracombe’s MP. It is a tight-knit resilient community of 12,000, and so remote that it has to be self-sufficient. It is 12 miles from Barnstaple, the major town in northern Devon, and almost 60 miles from Devon’s county town, the city of Exeter. At the start of the pandemic, it made national news by being the first community to fully develop a delivery and support network across the town, and the community continues to look after its own and all those who visit.

Ilfracombe is both rural and coastal, with a stunning harbour, a hardy fishing fleet and its own lifeboat station reflecting the treacherous coastline and rugged cliffs. It is one of those seaside towns that were popular with the Victorians but then got cut off with the closure of the train line in the ’70s. It has suffered from under-investment ever since. Tourism remains the No. 1 industry of the town. This creates its own challenges, with many small businesses choosing not to register for VAT and closing at the £85,000 threshold, leaving swathes of employees in seasonal work and on out-of-season benefits.

However, Ilfracombe is not a low-wage economy; it is a low-skill economy. Some 20% of over-16s have no qualifications at all, often leading big employers in the town to recruit internationally and break down jobs into those that match the skills. We see far too many of our bright youngsters head off to university, never to return. The south-west suffers from a youth exodus, with the highest number of 16 to 24-year-olds and the highest number of students leaving of any region. That has implications for those left behind.

School attainment gaps in the south-west between poorer pupils and the rest are the largest of all English regions at the end of both primary and secondary school, and that is not to mention the recruitment, retention and training challenges that exist for isolated and remote schools and the lower levels of school funding and teacher pay. Ilfracombe has the second biggest catchment of any secondary school in the country, with absenteeism running at 10%, which is a similar number to the percentage of people in Ilfracombe who have never worked and will never work at all.

Deprivation runs deep in Ilfracombe. As foreign holidays became the norm, old hotels became homes in multiple occupation. Ilfracombe even featured in the ’80s comedy show “Bread” as somewhere to move to, and some of those old hotels became care settings for those with addictions and no housing elsewhere in the country to be moved to. We have wards in Ilfracombe where over a quarter of the population are registered disabled under the terms of the Equality Act 2010. The town is still littered with derelict buildings and has 20 large buildings unoccupied. They are falling down and intermittently one is burnt to the ground. Surely there must be more that can be done to tackle these derelict buildings and bring them back into use.

Ilfracombe has the lowest healthy life expectancy of any rural town in the country, and a life expectancy over a decade below that of the healthiest towns in Devon. There are not big queues for healthcare in Ilfracombe. People often do not even present, despite lifestyle choices contributing to poor health. There is an acceptance that things are good enough, but they are not. I have attended more meetings on the issues of deprivation and health inequalities in Ilfracombe than I care to list. People care deeply about the issues in the town but solutions are hard to come by, which is why I have come to the Chamber to ask the Minister and his Department to help.

We were elected on a manifesto of levelling up, and on any metric whatsoever Ilfracombe clearly needs to be levelled up, yet the resources to tackle the root cause of the problem are not forthcoming. Having seen endless pieces of analysis, I know that the primary issue is shockingly poor housing. Some 37% of the population in Ilfracombe rent, and given that we have no university students, that is staggeringly high. Post pandemic, house prices have jumped by 53%, which is one of the highest rates in the country. That is understandable, as it is a beautiful place to live, but suffice it to say that wages have not increased by the same levels. We have lost almost two thirds of long-term rentals, mostly to short-term holiday lets, and far too many of the remaining rental properties are substandard. The council is apparently powerless to intervene unless there is something like a fire, and the pictures that I have circulated to the Department of the conditions that families are living in are unacceptable.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward; I spoke to her beforehand and I understand the issues clearly. She has outlined the issues of tourism, fishing and youth unemployment in north Devon, and now the issue of housing. As a representative of the small harbour village of Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford, I fully understand the pressure of finding affordable housing in these little communities. Does she not agree that social housing in rural communities must be a priority to enable people to remain with the family support that they have and the friendships they have made over the years?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will talk about affordable housing and, as he represents a coastal constituency, I am sure he will recognise what I am about to say.

Storms batter the North Devon coastline at this time of year, and old hotels shabbily converted into flats, some with no insulation, are taking the elements week after week and should be condemned, but the last thing we need is even more derelict buildings that no one will do anything with.

Because Ilfracombe is only a small part of North Devon, the metrics used to determine where the first round of levelling-up funding was spent meant that we were in the lowest category, and our tiny district council did not have lots of potential bids ready to go for Ilfracombe. A strong bid was submitted, although it was ultimately unsuccessful, but we all knew it was not going to level up Ilfracombe; it was just to secure some funding.

At the time, a senior council officer raised the issue of housing and what was really needed, but the levelling-up funds were all about transport and tourism, not housing. I am grateful to the new chief executive of Devon County Council who, arriving this spring from the remote and rural highlands, saw the deprivation in my constituency, and she was in my office weeks after her appointment to ask what was going on with Ilfracombe. Since her arrival and renewed focus, more councillors and council officers than ever before have headed north of Tiverton and made it up to Ilfracombe to see the problem. I am the only MP on the Devon Housing Commission, which has also visited.

It is hard to reconcile the fact that we are not worthy of levelling up, when we have 50 families looking at their second Christmas in a holiday park because there is not a single home available for them in northern Devon. Indeed, not a single affordable home has been built in Ilfracombe since 2006. The first are now under construction but, as another district council leader said during the presentation of these facts to the Devon Housing Commission, “Is this not a dereliction of duty?” Indeed it is.

Although our tiny district council knows that there is a problem, it does not have the resource to deliver a solution. At the end of the pandemic, my county council told me that my constituency was home to five of the 10 most deprived wards in all of Devon. My question was, “What are you going to do?” It is only with the new chief executive’s arrival that a proposal has been forthcoming. Six costed proposals, with different elements to tackle housing and skills, are with the Department.

I am grateful to the previous Levelling-up Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for visiting Ilfracombe and meeting the council, and I am grateful for the engagement of the current Levelling-up Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young). I very much hope that the promised meeting will deliver a plan as, quite simply, North Devon and Ilfracombe do not have the resource to resolve the housing situation on their own.

My frustration at the multiple tiers of local government, which have resulted in so much talking and so little delivery, is great. We simply have to tackle some of the housing issues in the town before we can tackle the others. I am delighted that a family hub for the town will be forthcoming. On average, because Devon County Council covers a huge area, many things in Devon look fine, or at least not bad, which hides pockets of deep deprivation in places like Ilfracombe, and we have missed out on far too many schemes and pots of money because the average looks fine but does not take into account the variance across the county.

Will the new devolution deal deliver anything to Ilfracombe? Unfortunately, time and again, we see money going to urban centres and not reaching smaller communities that are equally in need. Liberal Democrat-run North Devon District Council is apparently able to deliver only one project at a time. I had the pleasure of spending Friday morning with the council leader, who explained why the bus station in Barnstaple could not be upgraded because the council is too busy with the future high street project to tackle a second issue. I have confidence in the council officers, if not the political leadership, to understand what needs to be done, but there is a resourcing issue of both people and finance.

If we need to attract external funding to tackle some of these housing challenges, we do not have the experience of managing such projects well. We desperately need responsible social landlords to take on some of the properties in Ilfracombe, bring them up to standard and maintain them. Again, when will there be progress on the registration scheme for short-term rentals? Will the Minister ask the Treasury to level up the tax inequalities between long-term and short-term rentals to attract long-term landlords back to the market? All that happens at present is that we seem to get more retirement properties, second homes and properties being snapped up as holiday lets. As of yesterday, there were 19 rental properties in Ilfracombe being advertised on Rightmove and 803 on Airbnb.

The Minister has told me that there is not a fund that my council’s bid can be accepted into at this time, but given that deep dives have been done into other seaside locations that replicate Ilfracombe’s position, just on a far bigger scale, is there really no opportunity to look hard at these small coastal communities and the challenges they face? My father was head of a large coastal comprehensive in the middle of a council estate back in the 1980s, and the issues he faced there were identical to the ones I faced in North Devon when I retrained to teach, just ahead of my election to this place. We have to tackle social mobility and educational outcomes, but when people cannot afford to stay in their community because of a lack of affordable housing, and businesses have no incentive to grow because of the VAT tax threshold, it is hard to drive aspiration as a concept. The frustration that the Government are spending money overseas to house people who come to our shores illegally when we cannot house our own is immense. All I ask is that some resource is given to tackle what are shocking statistics at any level and leave Ilfracombe as the third most deprived rural town anywhere in the country. We know from so many pieces of research the stats on coastal communities, and we must seek to level up some of these smaller communities that are not big enough to stand out in national statistics.

Levelling up was supposed to reach into all communities, not just big towns and cities. I am very proud of the Ilfracombe community. It is has fantastic church and community leaders who work tirelessly to try to tackle the issues the town faces and look after their population. However, given the long-term, intergenerational nature of the issues, and the level of investment needed, we do need some help. Now that we have a plan to tackle issues, we are a step further forward than we were when I first raised the issues of Ilfracombe in this place. I see no point in trying to make political points out of this; for almost 20 years, nothing has been done, by councils of all different colours, to tackle the problem. The Government have highlighted the need to level up, and I very much want the next generation to be able to afford to stay and work in the high-tech green industries that we hope will be coming ashore along our coast. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to provide some hope that we may at last be able to tackle some of the root causes of the deprivation Ilfracombe suffers and, in particular, tackle its housing supply.

Let me start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for the opportunity to debate these important issues, as it is vital that Members have the opportunity to discuss them. Making sure that there are viable, aspirant and successful towns all across the country is a hugely important part of our job, one that motivated me to come to this place on behalf of North East Derbyshire. I know that it clearly motivates my hon. Friend to do the same for North Devon. Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities officials were pleased to hold a recent roundtable in Ilfracombe, which she mentioned. Officials and agencies had a productive discussion about some of the opportunities and challenges that she has rightly highlighted, and some of the points about support. I also recognise her for the important work that she does with the Devon Housing Commission, on which, as she said, she serves, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of that work. I want to spend 30 seconds just championing her in general, as she is one of the most diligent Members of this House. She is so utterly engaged in the issues that are important to her constituents and it is so important that that is the case. I know that North Devon residents will be very grateful for all the work she does.

Obviously, housing is vital for the Government’s long-term plan for economic recovery. In July, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) set out a long-term plan for housing, to usher in a new era of regeneration and housing delivery all across England. We are talking not only about more houses, but houses in the right place that are absolutely seeking to service and support local demand.

We are on track to achieve our manifesto commitment to deliver more than 1 million homes over the course of this Parliament. Since April 2010, more than 2 million homes have been delivered, and four of the highest annual periods for housing supply in the past 30 years have come in the past half decade or so. It is absolutely vital that we build more houses, but we need to build them in the right place and in a way that responds to local demand, as my hon. Friend has said. We will continue to work with Homes England. I have already met my hon. Friend a number of times to discuss the matter, but my offer to work in partnership with her remains, so we can see what we can do for North Devon in the long term, as well as constituencies around the country.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of aspiration, which we know can be a challenge in some of our smaller towns. We must ensure that we are not just giving people things, as important as they are—a lot of the discussion about levelling up has been about things. We need to give them the tools to go and change their lives for the better. If we can inculcate aspiration into our kids as they go through school and into our communities as people build their lives and businesses, and if we can ensure aspiration is at the core of everything we do, that is a fundamentally Conservative prospectus upon which to make our communities even stronger. It is also the most successful way to make our communities stronger in the long term.

The new funding announced in the autumn statement through the levelling-up partnerships, the further investment zones, the new investment opportunity fund and other funding for transformative projects across the country will make a real difference in areas where funding has been agreed and where it will come in the months ahead. Ilfracombe has benefited from Government funding to support increased housing and infrastructure, including the brownfield land release fund, which will provide 15 self-build and custom-build properties in Bicclescombe, Devon. In addition, £6.5 million from the housing infrastructure fund has been made available for the Ilfracombe southern extension. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point that much more needs to be done and I am happy to work with her on that.

We remain committed to creating a housing system that works, including increasing first-time buyers in every single region across the country. We are operating a range of schemes, including first homes, shared ownership and mortgage guarantee schemes, all of which aim to increase the supply of low-deposit mortgages and the availability of new housing, and to stimulate economic growth.

We know that first-time buyers can often struggle to afford to buy a home in the areas where they live and work. I have spoken to my hon. Friend previously about those challenges in North Devon. Key workers can find themselves unable to live in the communities they serve, as my hon. Friend highlighted. Initiatives such as the first homes scheme, while not perfect, allow local exemptions to be set under key worker criteria. I hope that communities up and down the land that are facing those challenges are able to use those schemes, but we recognise that there is always a longer conversation to have on that issue.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the basic point of fairness. This week, we will be talking about a number of other issues in this place; tomorrow, we will be talking about those who come to our shores illegally. She is right to highlight the views of her constituents that there has to be basic fairness with people coming to this country, so that we can make the case that the work we do on levelling up works for the long term. I hope we can make progress on that specific and broader point tomorrow.

My hon. Friend and I also spoke recently about community land trusts as a way to support housing supply that meets the needs of the local community. The community-led approach to house building involves community-based groups taking responsibility for driving forward local house building schemes. That support, and the close involvement of local communities, enables the securing of planning permission and the delivery of housing on sites. I hope that that is a possibility in North Devon in the future.

We have already spoken several times since I was appointed as Housing Minister a few weeks ago about the importance of getting clarity for my hon. Friend and other colleagues in Devon, Cornwall and elsewhere regarding short-term lets. In a debate in Westminster Hall a number of weeks ago, we talked about the importance of tourism for areas such as North Devon, and the importance of clarity about what is happening with regard to short-term lets. While I am still unable to give a specific timetable, my hon. Friend and her colleagues in the south-west have impressed upon us all in Government the urgency of providing clarity about both the register and what we intend to do with the planning use class. We will try to move forward on that as quickly as we can, and give clarity to communities such as North Devon as soon as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for prompting this important debate and giving us the opportunity, even in a small way, to discuss Ilfracombe—both the opportunities and the challenges—and to recognise that there is much more conversation to be had outside this Chamber with regard to its future. Places such as Ilfracombe, just like places such as North East Derbyshire, which I have the privilege to represent, have hugely bright futures if we can give communities the tools to get on and make those communities as aspirational as they can be. We need to ensure that Government support works for the long term, and continue the very good conversations that my hon. Friend has started and on which she is at the forefront, to ensure that she is championing places such as North Devon for the long term.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.