asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Whether they intend to continue the rural social and community programme beyond March 2008.
My Lords, it is unlikely that the programme will continue in its current form beyond March 2008. It was designed to be a two-year investment in rural community development, and many of the funded projects included exit strategies when they were set up. However, Defra has initiated work to consider the case for more funding for two of the most important elements of it—namely, rural community council funding and local measures to aid the supply of affordable rural housing.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but will Her Majesty’s Government and our new Prime Minister ensure that rural communities are not disadvantaged by the Comprehensive Spending Review? Does he agree that money allocated to regional agencies to support rural communities should perhaps be ring-fenced for that purpose?
My Lords, on the latter point, the whole thrust of government policy in recent years has been to get away from ring-fencing to give local people more choice, because that is the best place to make the decisions, whether at the regional or county level. The whole thrust, including with local government spending, is to put back more power, so I could not accept that suggestion. On the other hand, the Prime Minister will take second place to no one in wanting to support viable sustainable rural communities throughout the United Kingdom. This is a small part of the programme, as I said; we are considering, in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review, continuing the funding of two of the most important elements of that programme.
My Lords, I am glad that the Minister mentioned affordable rural housing. Does he agree that laissez-faire is bound to lead to the exclusion of low earners from those villages where their ancestors may have lived for centuries? Will the Government therefore encourage owners to provide low-cost sites and housing associations to provide houses to rent or for shared ownership?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right: given the way things have gone with laissez-faire, some villages do not have enough homes for the servants of the big houses nearby to live in. I probably should not have put it that way. But some of the landowners have woken up to that, and incredible programmes round the country are trying to put small pockets of housing—maybe four or six houses—into villages to enable local people to remain and to maintain a sustainable community. The Housing Corporation and the Country Landowners Association encourage that, as does Defra and the DCLG, and the planning laws allow for it. It is crucial that we continue such a programme. It is part of the funding that I mentioned to ensure that local sites are identified for affordable housing.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be aware, as he has talked about the programme’s importance, that one of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s main recommendations was on the need for rural housing enablers. The programme has funded some posts, but they have by no means been rolled out nationally; there are only a very few posts in the whole country. Can he assure us that there will be more of them and not none of them?
My Lords, this was a time-limited, fixed programme totalling £27 million over two years, but the Comprehensive Spending Review is coming forward. Defra is working on key elements of the programme and has sent the message to people in rural and county areas that local measures to aid the supply of affordable rural housing and funding of the rural community councils are the two most important parts. We are asking people to start work on that now. Indeed, Defra Ministers have commissioned the Housing Corporation to start to prepare work now in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review.
My Lords, does the Minister think that the criteria for allocating these rural houses in villages might be too strict? In Steeple Aston, where I live, we built a number, and they were absolutely splendid, but it was very hard to get the last one occupied. This occurred a few years ago. Does he think that it is time to look at the criteria? Who sets the criteria for that housing in rural villages?
My Lords, I do not know the precise details of the case that the noble Baroness mentions, but I suspect that the criteria were set by the Housing Corporation and the housing associations. It is very important for transparency and fairness that there are set criteria. If there is a particular problem and the noble Baroness drops me a note about it, I shall have it looked into.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will wish to keep the House informed about the way in which this programme, or its successor, evolves. Does he acknowledge that one of the key elements of the success of the programme was the leverage that it gave to voluntary and community action and leadership at local level?
Absolutely, my Lords. The whole point about this programme is that it is run by the third sector—the voluntary sector. That sector is sometimes far more efficient than local government because, generally speaking, its decisions are more locally based and are taken by people who know the locality—that is absolutely crucial—and are not so bound by red tape and barbed wire as is sometimes the case with statutory bodies. Therefore, the sector has a massive contribution to make in that respect.
My Lords, while local landowners are asked to make land available for social housing in rural areas, I believe that there is a rule—I have come across it in Oxfordshire—that when the county council disposes of land that could be used for rural housing, it is bound to accept the market rate. Therefore it is, as it were, letting the land go at hope value, or asking hope value, rather than letting it go at a lower value. Will the Minister consider that?
My Lords, I speak from memory, but I believe that where public bodies let land go, particularly in the four major growth areas of the country, other public sector bodies have to have a chance to look at it. It is not a question of selling off small parcels of land for what might look like the highest possible price irrespective of the community’s sustainability. A mechanism is in place, operated through the Department for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that English Partnerships and others have a look at the action. It may be the case that, although a lower price is paid, you get more from it in terms of making a community sustainable.