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Housing: Affordable Rural Housing Commission

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they intend to implement the recommendations of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission.

My Lords, the commission made more than 100 recommendations, of which approximately 60 per cent were for central Government. We have already implemented many of the commission’s recommendations—for example, through planning policy statement 3—and are looking further into others. The commission was keen to acknowledge that central Government were already doing much. Between 2006 and 2008 we aim to deliver more than 6,000 new affordable homes in small rural settlements.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. We will be pleased to hear which of the other recommendations have been implemented. Many practical recommendations were made on tax incentives, bringing empty houses back into use, publicly owned land that should be brought on-stream and reclassifying agricultural land as brownfield, yet very few of those suggestions have emerged into the public arena. The only announcement made this week was that the Minister’s department would not add a supplement to council tax on second homes. Can the Minister say why that decision was made?

My Lords, the Affordable Rural Housing Commission made it clear that its recommendations should be taken as a package, and we agreed. It was content that we would not give one single response but would put forward our recommendations in due course in different ways. Not accepting one recommendation does not mean that we do not fulfil the report’s intention.

It was announced today that the Housing Corporation will set up a rural housing advisory group to address many of the different delivery mechanisms. Two people on that body are from the ARHC. In PPS 3, we addressed many concerns about bringing forward land, more predictably, and giving local authorities much more scope to be proactive, reducing, for example, the threshold beyond which you can provide affordable housing to 15 or fewer. There is a great deal happening and it can be tracked on the website.

My Lords, there are now no national targets for affordable rural housing. In the light of that, how can the Government ensure that the DCLG requirement for positive planning for affordable rural housing as set out in PPS 3 will be implemented, particularly bearing in mind the plethora of strategies now around? There are regional strategies, spatial strategies, housing strategies and local development frameworks.

My Lords, national targets are less important than having the right information at the local level to do what is necessary. Regional bodies are the right place to set targets because they know the local needs. Those targets are fed through and help to inform local development frameworks, but it is crucial that local targets are based on best evidence. I am delighted to say that strategic housing markets assessment practice guidance will be published very soon. It will help local authorities to determine housing need and demand much more specifically and sensitively than they have been able to do to date.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Lake District Housing Association. Does the Minister agree that a shortcoming of policy towards affordable housing, especially in areas of important landscape, has been an excessive focus on new build and insufficient recognition of the possibilities supplied by the very considerable existing housing stock, whose problem is that it is too expensive?

Yes, my Lords, we need all sorts of housing in rural areas, not just market housing and affordable housing. We need to make better use of our housing stock and, perhaps, look at equity release—finding ways in which to help people to downsize, which would release larger houses. There are a variety of propositions. The Housing Corporation’s work with its rural advisory group will enable us to look at that sort of issue.

My Lords, the Church of England, like other charitable bodies that own extensive landholdings certainly wishes to do what it can to assist the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. To that end, there are notable examples of glebe land being released. However, charity law can often prevent land being sold at less than the maximum market value. One recommendation of the affordable rural housing commission was that the Government should determine whether charity law is inhibiting the Church of England and other denominations from making land available for affordable housing. What specific progress has been made on that recommendation?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that. I shall refer it to the department, but I am certain that it is precisely the sort of question that should be addressed by the bodies that I have just mentioned.

My Lords, given that only some 11 per cent of land in the United Kingdom is described as urban or suburban and 89 per cent is described as rural, does my noble friend agree that some improvement in the availability of land might be promoted, especially to aid and abet the creation of affordable housing?

My Lords, we are increasing the amount of green-belt land available. One thing in planning policy statement 3 that followed from the Barker report was the importance of making land supply predictable, so that local authorities know what land they have and can plan and provide for needs. That would take us beyond the current situation, where land supply tends to be windfall and unpredictable, so it is a definite improvement.

My Lords, given that 20 per cent of the population live in rural areas, why do they receive only 10 per cent of the funding from the Housing Corporation’s affordable housing programme?

My Lords, authorities that represent rural areas get the fair share of investment for their population. In 2006, for example, they received 21 per cent of all affordable housing allocations, which matched their percentage of the population—21 per cent. However, that money does not get fed through into the district housing programmes because land is not available, which is why ensuring more flexibility to provide land in the ways suggested today is extremely important.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the key recommendations of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission was the creation and increase in the number of rural housing enablers, who bring together landowners, planners and the local community? It is a relatively cheap recommendation. Could she report on any progress in achieving more rural housing enablers?

My Lords, it is a very valuable demonstration project which helps to show how things can best be done in partnership. To that extent it has informed local authorities about raising the visibility of the programme and being more innovative. About 40 rural enablers are now in place and are working very well, but as with many other programmes I cannot comment on future funding. It is funded to 2008 but everything will be decided in the context of the spending review.

My Lords, is it not the case that, in many rural areas of England, people on below-average incomes find that none of the local housing is remotely affordable? Is not the only way to provide affordable housing for less well-off local people to increase the supply of rented accommodation in the social housing sector from housing associations or, unfashionable though it may be, local authorities?

My Lords, as I said, we need all sorts of housing, not least to provide cross-subsidy between market housing and social rented housing. The noble Lord is right: we need more social rented housing, which is why we have made no secret of the fact that we shall look to have it prioritised in the spending review.