My Lords, from April 2010 to September 2012, 7,519 affordable homes were built in rural communities of fewer than 3,000 people through the Homes and Communities Agency’s Affordable Homes Programme. We expect rural delivery in the next two years to account for nearly 10% of anticipated completions of the programme outside London.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Her figures do not compare well to the estimated rural housing need of at least 11,000 additional units per year. Housing affordability remains an urgent problem for the rural working poor, and this problem is getting worse, not better. Will the noble Baroness please tell us what the Government will do to protect the rural low-paid against the combined effect of housing benefit changes such as the bedroom tax, underfunded councils in rural areas cutting council tax benefit, and, if the Government go ahead and abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, farm workers in tied houses losing their protection on rents?
My Lords, the question was about rural housing, but it seems to have spread a little wider than that. We recognise that affordable housing in the countryside is a problem. We are very clear that rural areas and the people in them require affordable housing, and that affordable housing should take into account welfare benefits as well as the other aspects raised.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Northumberland, notwithstanding budgetary difficulties, has announced this week £20 million worth of building and £20 million worth of land for houses over the next three years? Is she further aware that it has taken the opportunity to use new powers, with the reorganisation of council benefit, to not allow any discount on second homes and empty homes?
My Lords, I am delighted to hear what the noble Baroness has to say because we sometimes hear that nothing is happening in the north, while it is clear that it is, because we have had other examples in this House over the past few weeks. That, therefore, is extremely good news, and I am glad that Northumberland is making use of legislation, as it can, to best effect.
My Lords, we have made it clear, in the National Planning Policy Framework, that the green belt is virtually sacrosanct, but we recognise that occasionally green belt land needs to be used for affordable housing, although that will need to be replaced. Some green belt land, as the noble Lord knows, is not absolutely brilliant land, so where you can use that rather than going into real open space, it should be used. However, we need affordable housing, and we recognise that.
My Lords, the dearth of affordable social housing in rural communities impacts upon the mental, physical and spiritual health of such communities. Will the Minister agree that all new housing projects in rural areas should be mandated to include affordable housing?
My Lords, we know that most affordable housing projects in rural areas tend to be small. Basically, they happen when the land or housing is protected for rural people. The projects may be small or larger, but they can be built under a number of systems; we know that there is shared ownership, social rent, affordable rent and intermediate rent, so there should be a reasonable spread across the country.
What is the position regarding amenities such as a centre to help disabled people or handicapped children, which could be built in conjunction and is very necessary for some communities? The noble Baroness mentioned that communities will be able to put housing on green-belt land. Could that same permission be given for such adjuncts, which are an important part of any housing scheme?
My Lords, that would be for local decision, if the local authority believed that that was an appropriate use of land. Indeed, such amenities could be included in the neighbourhood plan. The more of those we can get up and running, the better. These sorts of facilities which are vital, as the noble Baroness said, can be included in those plans. I readily accept that communities need and want these essential facilities.
My Lords, the Minister was a bit dismissive of the broadening of the Question put by my noble friend Lord Knight. However, does she not realise that in rural areas particularly, affordability is a question of income as well as of the availability of housing? This is particularly true in areas such as the south-west, where the ratio between house prices and incomes is at its worst. Therefore, will she address holistically the problem of affordable housing in areas such as the south-west by having a coherent regional housing policy which allows people to live in the villages in which they were born?