My Lords, this Government are safeguarding village life. We have already given community rights to give power to communities, enabling them to shape their place and protect their local assets. We have also delivered over 7,500 affordable homes in the smallest rural communities. The £20 million community branch fund is supporting Post Office community branches, enabling them to further enhance their sustainability and viability, and the Rural Development Programme for England has invested over £400 million to grow the rural economy.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am sure he will agree that villages of, say, 1,000 or fewer residents are not just to be suburbs of larger towns, but places where people can live and earn their living. Can the Minister tell me what plans the Government have to encourage the liveliness and buoyancy of villages? Could we ask every community and parish council to draw up a plan so that they know what their present status is, what their problems are, and what their proposals are for the future?
I agree with my noble friend; he makes a very good point about the importance of village life. As I have already alluded to, the Government are investing a great deal in this respect. Let me draw the attention of the House to the Rural Community Buildings Loan Fund that the Government are supporting, which is a £700,000 Defra fund that is managed by ACRE and encourages communities to raise funds. Of course, the Government have also pushed and worked with the Post Office to ensure that post offices are retained at a local level and we are working alongside banks to ensure that communities in the most remote parts can access financial services. Indeed, I believe that RBS has just started a mobile scheme that goes out to about 90 rural towns that are hard to reach, which is quite innovative and certainly is supported by the Government.
Is the Minister aware that in many villages in national parks the fact that more than 50% of the houses are now used as holiday lets means, for example, that GP practices are having to close in places like Coniston and Hawkshead in the Lake District because there are insufficient permanent residents? What plans does the Minister have to consider the proposals from local authorities that they should have some say on the designation of holiday lets?
The Government have already outlined their commitment to the localism agenda. I have talked previously from the Dispatch Box about local enterprise partnerships. These are prevalent not just in towns but in villages and within the rural economy. Currently five pilot rural growth networks have been established in Warwickshire, the north-east, Swindon in Wiltshire, the heart of the south-west and Cumbria. These are all working with the local authorities and local lets to encourage local growth. The noble Lord’s point about holiday lets is well made. However, we are working with local authorities to ensure the vibrancy of local economies and local housing.
My Lords, reference has been made at various points to housing. The Minister will be well aware of the importance for the sustainability and vitality of rural communities of a good mix of housing, housing tenure and so forth. Does he agree that community land trusts are a valuable and perhaps essential way of ensuring a continuing and permanent supply of affordable housing in rural communities? If so, what commitment have the Government made to increasing the number of such trusts?
The right reverend Prelate makes a valid point. We work with local authorities to ensure that we identify trusts which can take forward development of the local economy. The community right to build was part of our localism agenda and we are encouraging that. However, I fully acknowledge that there is a lack of affordable housing in villages, which has a knock-on effect on sustainability. We are currently looking to deliver more than 73,000 affordable homes that have been provided for in rural local authorities in England since April 2010.
When my noble friend talks to local authorities, will he talk to them seriously about their partiality in these matters? Many of them will deal only with what they call larger villages—central villages that are convenient for them—rather than with small villages. I, for example, am told that I do live not in a village but in a scattered settlement. It has always been a village but it is now a scattered settlement. The reason is that the local authority does not want to treat us as it treats others because that would be inconvenient for its bureaucracy. Will the Minister please have a word about this partiality?
I of course recognise my noble friend’s concern, including his reference to a scattered development. I will certainly look into that. In Arun in the county of Sussex the country’s first three community right to build orders were successfully passed in Ferring, Arun district, in December last year.
My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged the lack of affordable homes in rural areas. In particular, is there not a lack of smaller homes? In these circumstances, does not the bedroom tax have an especially pernicious effect on rural areas, and is not the only solution to get rid of this wretched tax?
The important point is how many homes are being built. I am sure the noble Lord recognises that we currently have a record number of housing starts and, indeed, housing builds, and that is what we need to encourage. I have already alluded to some of the initiatives that we are taking. I believe my noble friend Lord Freud has previously highlighted that, where difficulties with the bedroom tax are identified, the Government have made available funds to help people in that situation.