§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
rose to call attention to the Report on Rural Housing published by the National Federation of Housing Associations, and to possible solutions for the grave housing difficulties of many villages; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, today is a day of penance, when perhaps we should be fasting, if not wearing sackcloth and ashes. However, I rejoice in the luck of the ballot and I feel it is a privilege to open this debate in your Lordships' House, which has such a very great fund of experience on all rural matters. The report that we are discussing today was commissioned by the National Federation of Housing Associations, when that body became aware that the great bulk of its work had taken place in towns, and that the rural housing associations were, one might say, almost the Cinderellas of the movement. The federation, and I am sure your Lordships, too, will be extremely grateful to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, who not only consented to be chairman of the working party which produced the report, but also wrote the foreword to it and presided at the launching meeting last November at the Royal Society of Arts.
The working party of 12 included representatives of the Housing Corporation, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Country Landowners' Association and the Dorset County Council. It heard evidence from many organisations and individuals, including the National Farmers' Union, the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the National Federation of Women's Institutes.
I should perhaps declare some slight personal interest, in that I was a member of the working party and that I am still chairman of a rural housing association—one of those quoted in Chapter 5 of the report. I do not, however, wish to speak on a personal or a local note. I shall try instead to sketch in the national scene for England, in the hope that subsequent speakers will fill in the detail with graphic instances from their various and widely scattered counties.
The report touches on the national background and on the rural context. It describes rural housing problems and their resulting unfortunate human consequences. It concludes by suggesting four possible lines of remedy. The national background covers, of course, the housing and planning legislation since 1914, and it highlights the many current anomalies due in part, I know, to inflation and high interest rates. The chapter on the rural context points out very clearly how housing cannot be seen in isolation. Employment, transport and services are so closely bound together, and so intimately connected with it, that they must be seen with it.
Whether or not people wish to live in a particular village depends, I believe, in very large measure on the survival of what have been described as the "five Ps". These are the parson, the pub, the post office, the primary school and the petrol pump. If there are too few houses in a particular village, or only luxury houses, these five essential Ps will crumble away for lack of custom. 943 What, then, are the specific rural housing problems? Several are, I think, quite common. Planning controls are more restrictive in the countryside than in towns, and therefore one is faced with the problem of scarcity value, both for existing sites and for existing houses. Private renting has declined dramatically and the supply of tied houses in the country has decreased in parallel with fewer jobs in agriculture. In the countryside, there are proportionately fewer council houses than in towns, and the high cost of providing houses in small batches has made it more difficult both for local authorities and for housing associations to provide extra houses for rent. Private development has tended to make provision mainly for retired and richer people, who are usually in a position to outbid local workers. In many villages, no new development has been possible, because water authorities have not been able to provide sewers or mains water supplies.
These difficulties lead, as I indicated, to consequences that can be very serious and sometimes even tragic. In some rural areas, there is a floating population of adults, engaged and married couples, cramped up with their parents or parents-in-law. They sometimes find refuge in caravans or in temporary holiday lettings. In all these cases, they have no security of tenure. Other young couples, even those with jobs, who wish to live in villages can find no council house or they cannot afford to buy at the current level of village house prices. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, there is an ageing population often living in houses too large for them, who need smaller and more manageable premises with, if possible, a warden service or some other form of help in case of emergency.
Against this gloomy background, what possibilities can we see? The report identifies four in particular. There is, first, the role of the statutory authorities; secondly, there is the need to preserve the existing rented housing; thirdly, there is a great need, I suggest, to harness all the available local human resources; and, finally, there is the question of finance. I should like to spend a moment on each of these.
I think it is true to say that rural housing problems are much less obvious than urban ones. It is, therefore, of vital importance that central Government should recognise the need of villages and ensure that these have a proper priority. It is equally desirable that county councils, as planning authorities, should positively favour well-designed new building in villages, and should co-ordinate planning with their other roles in support of schools and employment. District councils should bring together all the necessary local services, especially those of the water authorities. Districts should build some new houses outside towns and, with the Housing Corporation should join in providing loans for housing associations.
As I mentioned, the pool of private rented houses has shrunk considerably and it is of prime importance that we should keep what is left. Housing associations sometimes provide a means of doing this. The admirable North Wiltshire scheme has shown how district councils can provide effective help. This scheme has been mentioned before in your Lordships' House, and I have today put down a Question for Written Answer to ask about its progress.
At this point, I should like to try to enlarge our 944 conventional thinking. It seems to me that big resources exist in the countryside which are more or less untapped. I mean by that, resources of human energy lying in such bodies as parish councils and other local voluntary organisations, and in individuals who are concerned with the vitality and continuity of villages and local communities. These are the kind of people who should be studying the local situation. They should be urging on the authorities. They should be taking initiatives themselves. These are the kind of leaders who should form local housing associations, and secure the help of regional and national housing associations for building schemes in villages. This will, of course, be hard work, but surely it is better than sitting by the television and merely grumbling.
I want to digress for a moment at this point to mention a very useful folder entitled Rural Housing Initiatives, by Mr. David Clark and published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. There is another kit, entitled Village Action, which includes a section on housing, published by the National Extension College. I hope that both of these documents will soon be placed in your Lordships' Library. I suggest that they will be very useful for stimulating local initiative.
I come now to the inescapable question of money: how can new houses and improved older buildings be financed? The rural homeless, the unemployed and the aged poor have already been mentioned. These people cannot possibly buy their own homes. They are therefore compelled to rent. It seems to me therefore that housing authorities and housing associations must provide for them by conventional methods. Many people in these categories have very strong roots in the country and it would be quite wrong, in my view, that they should be willy-nilly herded into the towns.
Young couples with jobs and elderly owner-occupiers, on the other hand, are in a quite different situation. The old person with a house to sell is an obvious candidate for a new form of ownership known as leasehold for the elderly. Already I believe that some 300 flats and bungalows have been produced by this means. Young couples and first-time buyers may have a good income but not a sufficient one to buy at the current price of houses in villages.
How can the house and the finance be tailored to suit their requirements? The report clearly outlines the concept of shared ownership. I will not describe this in detail. It is proposed that it should use a mixture of building society finance and other institutional funds. Similar methods have already been tested in some 500 publicly-funded equity sharing houses. The new method proposed by the National Federation of Housing Associations uses little or no public money, but the federation is extremely grateful to the Development Commission for agreeing to prime the pump on the first 100 houses of this sort. The federation hopes to launch a new investment vehicle, with pension funds and other organisations, during the coming year. To sum up on finance, we propose a combination of new and traditional methods.
I conclude by asking Her Majesty's Government a number of questions, of which I have given notice. Will the Government modify their priority guidelines for housing which they lay down both for local authori- 945 ties and for the Housing Corporation? Will they recognise the urgency of rural housing problems and will they put some strong emphasis on their solution? What plans have the Government in mind for the 28 per cent. of all unfit houses in Britain which are to be found in the rural areas? Am I right in thinking that something like one-half of the existing agricultural workers are now aged 50 or more and that some 50,000 of them are likely to retire within the next 12 years? What thought is being given to this kind of problem? And is the Department of the Environment in consultation with the Department of Health and Social Security? Is Marsham Street in correspondence with the Elephant and Castle?
These are important questions, and I am sure that the noble Lord who is to reply will give me helpful answers. I should like if possible, however, to draw him out a little further and ask whether the Government are sympathetic to the report; do they welcome it and will they go further and act upon it? I very much hope that this will be the case. I commend the report to your Lordships' House and beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, the whole House will be genuinely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for having raised this matter today in the House. It is a matter upon which, between them, noble Lords have a large amount of expertise. We certainly look forward to some of the contributions which we shall hear in the course of the next couple of hours. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was extremely careful in his use of the time available in a limited debate such as this. For that we are partly grateful to him—for leaving us more time—and partly sorry for not having heard him at rather greater length.
That there is a need for rural housing is, I think, no longer seriously in doubt. The need is made up of several strands. First, there is the need for housing for those who live there. Some of this need is apparent (it is on the surface) while some of it is not all that easy to see and is not necessarily noticeable until you start looking. Some people, and some local councils, have not looked as deeply as they may. The problem, quite often, is that there is over-housing and under-housing and that, because of the lack of fluidity in the housing market in rural areas, it is not always easy to adjust the amount of demand to the amount of supply.
May I give one example. It is the only part of my speech where I shall be reading from a brief. I shall read from the admirable series of briefings prepared by David Clark of the NCVO. They have already been alluded to, and they are particularly interesting on the question of concealed demand. In 1976, the council of Uldale responded to a request from one parish, Caldbeck, on the edge of the national park to build council houses there. There were no names on the list, since there were no council houses, but the council agreed to build new units without a list. This news produced for the first time a waiting list. Immediately the supply was announced the list appeared. In the event, the council allocated all the tenancies to people from Caldbeck. There was no need to let them to incomers, and four of the applicants were the most deserving the council had had for some time. There is now a waiting list at Caldbeck. With four 946 houses filled a waiting list appears—and all in a village where there was no record of a demand for housing.
I have no doubt that that experience can be repeated in various places all over Britain. So there is a very real demand. There is also a growing demand, I am glad to say, from people who want to live in the countryside. There is the beginning of a return to the countryside. All of us who want there to be a thriving rural economy, with the basic services to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred, and villages of a size and of a thriving nature which can support those services, will be delighted that there is an incoming element into the countryside.
One of the factors involved, and something which puts pressure on the market, is the demand for second homes. This is a problem. My party has very strong views about this particular problem. It does suggest that there should be planning permission introduced for people intending to use a house as a second home. I do not believe there would be very much difficulty in doing this; a change of use would be counted as a change of use if one wanted to live in a place when one already had a house of one's own elsewhere. There are, of course, other ways of dealing with that. We were discussing the other day devolution to the countryside, where one paid for the services of local councils. I can think of few better sources of tax than a fairly high tax on second homes, which would finance the money needed to build other houses.
All these pressures are on the not very large housing stock. They are healthy pressures; they are pressures which we should be pleased are there and not deplore them, because as I have already said, it is essential that we have a thriving countryside and communities which can support the services which are needed. Many different schemes have been produced, some of which have already been quoted in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton; no doubt other schemes will be quoted by other Lords. Great ingenuity has been shown in finding ways of producing housing of the kind needed for the people who are there, at prices which they can afford. There have been admirable self-build schemes in different parts of the country and, through Section 52 restrictive covenants, there are efforts to restrict the occupancy of certain houses to people who genuinely live and work in the country. There are also the very ingenious and good schemes of short lets through local councils, which are not long-term solutions but which lift the pressure that exists on housing stocks. The point that I want to make from this Front Bench this afternoon is that many of the schemes are, or should be, unnecessary ways of trying to get around obstacles which ought not to be there in the first place. There are two real problems about rural housing and neither of them has a deep seat in the countryside, but both have a deep seat in No. 10 Downing Street.
The first is the Government's financial policy, which has led to the undesirable situation that almost all housing in the countryside and elsewhere has been frozen. This must be a nonsense. It is appalling how often one gets led back to the Government's financial policy in practically every debate that comes before this House. It is no accident that one gets led back because the policy is one that does not allow us to put our resources into the creation of new wealth 947 (and housing is new wealth) and the maintenance of old wealth (and the houses which are already there are old wealth). It must be a terrible policy and one that does harm in every single facet of the nation's life.
Secondly, and lastly, I should like to stress the importance that my party places on the concept of devolution. A great deal of what we see being done by councils in order to get round problems is something that they ought to be able to do absolutely freely and off their own bat. We must give local government a very great deal more power than it has at the moment. A local government which is responsible to its electorate should not be shackled in the way that it is. I do not have time to go into detail, but one particular example I must mention is the option as to whether to sell council houses. It is monstrous that local councils which can provide houses and housing for people living locally at prices which they can afford are being forced to sell houses to sitting occupants, often at very low—not to mention ridiculous—rates. There certainly ought to be local option in that area, and that is only one of the many areas, I believe, where we ought to set the local government of this country free.
I believe we are going to see a revival of the countryside. That revival is already beginning. What must we do to ensure that that happens? There are signs that it is happening. There is this debate this afternoon, for which many noble Lords have put down their names to speak. There are various bodies, such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, which have produced schemes and got themselves involved. There are signs everywhere that there is a movement back to the country and towards the re-establishment of true wealth in the countryside. We must not let that be in any way stopped or shackled by a primarily urban Government. When I use the term "urban Government" I am not getting at the present Conservative Government, because any Government in this country, by the very nature of our population and the make-up of our constituencies, is primarily an urban Government. It is up to urban Governments to care for minority interests, and the minority interests in the countryside in particular, because it is there so often that we will find a great deal of the real help and background that we need for our national life.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I too should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for introducing this debate. Rural housing is, and has been for some time, an extremely important subject. However, I would take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in that I personally do not believe that the present Government's financial policy has caused the problem; the problem was there a long time before the Conservatives came to power, and I am glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding his head in agreement with me. The noble Lord also mentioned the great shortage in the country of houses to rent. I believe that is primarily caused, as in the towns and cities, by the rent Acts of previous socialist Governments.
In my view, the rural housing problem could be show- 948 ing just the tip of the iceberg at the moment. In the not too distant future, although possibly not immediately foreseeable, the very rapid change in modern communications will mean that vast numbers of people who have to work in the cities today will be able to live and work in the country, which is a very much more pleasant place. This will increase demand on country houses and cottages, and also on the services which have to be provided. As a result, the price of buying a house in the country will be put even higher in comparison with buying a house in town, at today's figures. With the technology we have already, I believe that the whole of the Stock Exchange, the insurance business and possibly the Baltic Exchange could quite easily work outside London, connected by telephone lines and teleprinters and various forms of telecommunications.
I think at this stage it is up to the Department of the Environment and the local authorities to look at the planning position in a very positive manner. I always get the impression that when someone applies for planning permission in the country or in a village he receives an almost automatic refusal in the first instance. What I should like to see is the local authorities going round their villages and earmarking space for future development, possibly over a timed period, such and such a piece of land within the next five years, others within 10 to 15 years, but doing it in very much greater detail than is being done at the moment.
I think we also have a reserve of land available for housing in the country that is outside the villages, not necessarily in the open spaces but in and around the farm buildings and farmyards that already exist. There are amalgamations taking place throughout the country of agricultural holdings, leaving a surplus of farm buildings that are not required for the economic running of the holding. Sometimes it is too expensive for the freeholder physically to move his buildings or to erect sufficient new buildings at a central position to give a set of farm buildings that happens to be relatively central to his holding. If he could move his centre of operations to one point this would very often make for an economically more profitable holding. It would also leave areas or pockets in the countryside currently covered by buildings that could be converted, and where there are spaces in between the buildings, not just for conversion but for what in a village or town would be known as in-fill.
If you have a building in the country that is of architectural merit and is not being used for any purpose, you can get permission with some difficulty to get a change of use to residential. But I think that we must also look at those buildings that are not of architectural merit, because they can be used. As far as the problem of water and sewage is concerned, very often farms have their own method of disposing of sewage laid on. It may need improvement, but that is not too difficult to do, and they have of course got water there already.
With regard to finance, which is not really my subject, I was very interested to see the North Wiltshire scheme in the report, and hope this will spread to more areas of the country and that a number of local authorities will take it up. One of the major problems in rural areas is that incomes are very often considerably 949 lower than in the urban areas. It is, therefore, a great deal more difficult for young married couples starting out on life to get a mortgage that they can afford to pay for. I should therefore like to see an increase in the shared ownership and deferred purchase schemes.
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Hereford
My Lords, I welcome this report and hope that it will be very widely read and studied. There are just two points that I would like to make. The first is to bring to your Lordships' notice the difficulties that the small rural housing associations are experiencing in attracting grants and support for their projects. Here I must declare an interest, as my diocesan council for social action set up our own housing association some years ago.
Your Lordships will be aware that human need is relative. The effect of unemployment on six school-leavers living in a small close community of 300 people is likely to be greater than that on their counterparts living in an urban situation. The effect of being homeless or unable to rent or buy your first home in a community in which you have been born and bred, where you are related to almost everybody in it, and which you have no wish to leave, is likely to be devastating both on an early marriage and also on the life of the community which you are about to leave. It is the departure of our young married couples who cannot get housed which is one of the greatest concerns to us in rural dioceses and rural areas at the present time.
"Rural deprivation" is a somewhat hackneyed term, but it is nonetheless real. Most of our villages have large properties, such as parsonage houses, which are too large for the incumbent these days. These could be converted into sheltered housing or flats to accommodate the single homeless. In Hereford itself at the moment such groups—namely, the elderly and the single homeless—have to wait something in excess of three years before they can be housed, but their situation could be greatly relieved if it were possible for the small rural housing association to operate.
Land is also available, for most of these large parsonage houses have glebe attached to them or glebe situated within or just outside the village. The Church Commissioners give very sympathetic consideration to applications from housing associations who wish to use that property or that land for developments of this kind. But the housing associations are so often frustrated by the powerful conservationist lobby, who, in seeking to preserve the past, actually work against the needs of the rural communities in the present, and who at the same time are leaving, I believe, little hope for the quality of rural life in the future. In the face of such powerful lobbies local authorities are very reluctant to make grants. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, the first application is almost always automatically turned down. I am glad to see that in the report this particular point of conservation and the difficulties experienced in trying to get projects off the ground is brought out early, on page 2 at paragraph b.
As a result, it seems certain that the smaller housing associations will have to merge with the larger bodies. Although it may bring increased efficiency in some areas, it will be at the expense of voluntary housing involvement which forms a great feature of our local housing associations. Local involvement and local 950 interest is one of the marks of the small housing associations, where much of the help given is voluntary, although it is often given by those who have great expertise in their various areas. The great fear of small associations merging with larger associations is that there will be a greater emphasis on projects in the larger centres of population. No elderly person, nor indeed a newly married couple, wishes to move away from the community in which they have been born and bred, to whom they are related, where they have lived all their lives, or where their work may actually be. In Hereford and the border country, as in most really rural areas—and we are not a commuter area—to move five miles from your village, or even 10 miles, is to move into foreign country, and it is not acceptable to those who are looking for housing at the present time.
I am grateful for some of the possible solutions that the report gives which I believe will be very relevant in helping in the situation in which we find ourselves at present. There is, however, one omission in the report which I greatly regret. No mention is made of the needs of the gypsy population, who are perhaps the most misunderstood and deprived of all ethnic minorities in our country at present and who are resident in all our rural areas.
Your Lordships will be aware that it is important to differentiate between the gypsies and other itinerant groups such as tinkers, the Midland Irish or showmen. As in all rural areas, we have a number of gypsy families who were born in the country and whose families have lived there for generations. In Hereford there are some 58 such families who are continually harassed, moved on and ostracised, to the great harm of their family life, the education of their children and their distinctive culture. It was, for instance, to some of those families who lived on Weobley Common that Vaughan Williams turned when he went to find the traditional folk tunes and songs of England.
The provision of permanent sites for this underprivileged minority in our rural communities is urgent. Efforts to obtain them are frustrated, for many of the reasons that I have indicated, in the provision of housing in our rural areas. I hope that in any future report on rural housing or rural communities the needs of the gypsies, this underprivileged community, will not be overlooked.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, 21 years ago in another place I initiated a debate on urban housing and took the then Government to task about their lack of a programme. The then Minister of Housing, now Lord Hill of Luton, very kindly came down on a Friday to reply to the debate, but he was slightly taken aback when I suggested to him that he might do better driving a bulldozer pushing Cable Street into the Thames. Here I am, 21 years later, taking part in a debate on rural housing in which I, of course, have a great interest.
I am very much obliged, as I am sure we all are, to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this debate, and I must congratulate him not only on what he said and on what is in the report, but on the delightful way in which it is laid out—the printing, the photographs and so on. It is a very good report indeed, and we are most grateful to the noble Lord. Unfortunately, 951 I have been away for a fortnight and I only managed to get hold of a copy at lunchtime—the only copy in the Library today—and I have had to scan it rather quickly. Nevertheless, I thought that it was first class.
I was interested in the noble Lord's "five Ps" which he said were essential for village life. I would not like to be invidious and choose which of them is the most important, but we all know that the post office in the village is usually in the general merchant shop. The late Gordon Selfridge was shooting in Tomintoul and while in the hotel he began talking to a local shopkeeper. The local shopkeeper, discovering that he sold the same goods as he did, said to him, "Of course you will have the post office". Gordon Selfridge said, "Good Lord, what would I do with a post office?" The man said, "Oh, it is no use without a post office". One of the essential things about a village is the noble Lord's "five Ps", including the post office, although I am, perhaps, not putting it first.
The noble Lord made a very strong point when he said that we could not consider rural housing in isolation: it is tied up with many other rural matters. That was a good point. The noble Lord mentioned the high cost of small groups of houses. I was surprised that the noble Lord made this point because I would have thought that with local tradesmen, self-employed tradesmen, in rural areas one could build houses cheaper than one can in a town, with the enormous expense involved there. But perhaps the noble Lord has some proof that that is not the case. Anyway, I thought that it was a point which would be difficult to prove.
Over the last 50 years I have built, on the farms which I have farmed, 17 new houses and I have renovated 26—that is, putting in bathrooms, electricity and all the necessary modern things. I thought that I had finished when my youngest son came to me the other day and said: "Dad, we shall need to start putting central heating into all our houses". We started to do that to one of the houses and I discovered that to put central heating into a three-bedroomed house cost twice as much as it cost to build the first two houses which I built 40 years ago. Therefore, I am afraid that I shall be starting all over again.
I should like to make two points, one of which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and it concerns the gap sites in villages and the lack of planning that local authorities give to using those gap sites which, in my opinion, would not do any harm to villages. This happens very much in the green belt, and I happen to live in the green belt. There are a lot of gap sites that could be filled in without doing any harm to the green belt. In many villages there are any amount of these gap sites which could be filled in without loss at all to the amenities.
The second point concerns the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, which is mentioned in the report and which has also been mentioned in this debate. I think that the Act was a very good compromise indeed to giving complete security to farm workers in tied farm cottages. You could not possibly give them complete security because that would have nullified the mobility of labour and, after all, a farm worker cannot really improve his conditions without moving quite long distances. If there were complete security it would 952 certainly reduce the mobility of labour which takes place when a farm worker wants to improve his conditions, his job or anything else. Tied houses provided this. But there were undoubtedly evils in the tied house system; the NUAW has fought against it for many, many years and succeeded four or five years ago.
I think that the new Act is very good indeed. It still leaves us mobility and it gives this considerable security for which farm workers have fought so long. But the new Act will not work unless council houses are available. Indeed, there is a section in the Act stating that councils must "make their best endeavours". That is a very woolly statement because if a council does not want to help, then it can say that it does not have a house for the particular occasion. I have nothing against the sale of council houses—a lot are being sold —provided that the money is used to build more council houses. But when I was the Member for Enfield I approached the then chairman of the housing committee of the council about the sale of houses and asked her what she was going to do with the money. She said that she was going to put it into the revenue account. I said that that was a huge mistake and that it must go into the capital account and be spent on more houses. Unless that is done, and unless we have these council houses or some sort of housing in rural areas, then the 1976 Act simply will not work.
My second point has also been made by another noble Lord in this debate; namely, that it is no use putting people who have worked in the country all their lives and who have stayed in a village or in a house on a farm, into a flat in the town. In the towns around the village where we stay, there are a lot of flats which are run by the council. There was one occasion when a man who was retiring was offered a flat in a tower block. You just cannot do that to people. I would like to think that there will be plenty of houses in the villages to make the Rent Act work properly.
I do not wish to say any more except that more rural housing and larger villages that will support the noble Lord's "five Ps" are essential. It would solve a great many social problems if we had larger villages and a dilution of the big towns into the villages, where the people would get a better life altogether. Again, I thank the noble Lord for raising this interesting debate. I hope the Government will take some notice of what is said, but they are sometimes guilty of not doing so.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on his good fortune in succeeding in the ballot in being able to introduce this debate and in bringing before us this valuable report. I should like to pay a tribute to him and to his illustrious colleagues for producing it. In fact, the report itself is so illustrious that one is hesitant to introduce any note of criticism at all. However, there is one small mistake in the report which I should like to correct—and the noble Lord himself has made the same mistake. It is rather material. A year before this report was published—that is, in 1980—in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act, the planning functions that are relevant to what we are discussing were transferred from the counties to the 953 districts, and in all the matters with which this report is concerned it is the district councils who are the planning authorities as well as the housing authorities.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, if the noble Lord will kindly give way, perhaps I may point out that I was referring to strategic plans when I referred to county councils.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, the report does not make that distinction clear, but the noble Lord is perfectly correct. The county councils retain their structure planning powers, but the local planning powers—which are the more relevant to housing matters—are now with the districts. This is important because the matter to which the right reverend Prelate drew attention—the splitting of the powers which had existed in the past—had undoubtedly made things more difficult because the county councils have applied particularly stringent planning powers to conservation areas, and so on, and this has made the work of the housing authorities more difficult. Now that both those functions are held by the same authority it will be easier to reconcile them.
However, I must point out that in the national parks, which represent a pretty large chunk of all the remoter rural areas, the planning powers are still with the national parks authorities, which are, in fact, the county council committees, and the housing powers are with the districts; though that same piece of legislation did provide for the districts to be represented on the national parks authorities, and the liaison between the two is achieved in that way. The recently published report by the tourism, recreation and research unit of Edinburgh University makes a further recommendation in this field; namely, that the districts and the national parks authorities ought to be associated together in the preparation of housing investment programmes in the remote rural areas. That is a good point. I do not think that a statutory change is called for, but liaison certainly is.
But I must return to more general points. A debate on housing is always welcome, but one specially concentrated on rural housing is particularly welcome because, with only a small proportion of the population living in the countryside as compared with the towns, housing policies for rural areas are apt to get swamped or overwhelmed by the higher priorities that are very properly given to the urban areas. Therefore, it is good from time to time to concentrate our attention on the rural scene.
The rural scene has been the subject of quite a number of reports in the past decade, and I think it is true to say that it is the remote rural areas which have been the main focus of attention. We have been perceiving that those areas have been suffering from depopulation, as the right reverend Prelate has just said. There is the damaging effect of an over-exclusive attention to agricultural productivity—a loss of jobs leading to a run-down of services—the elimination one by one of these "five Ps" of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, closure of rural institutions, too many people who own expensive housing in the countryside for retirement, for holidays and for weekend use, to the exclusion of the indigenous population.
But the 1981 Census returns are now coming in and 954 I think that it is important to look carefully at them because they indicate a need to change our assumptions about these remote rural areas. The 1981 Census returns indicate that over the past decade the remote rural areas are now the only areas which show a higher rate of growth in the 1970s than in the 1960s. That is to say, it is the remote rural areas, which we thought were suffering from depopulation, which have been growing in the 1970s as compared with a decline in the 1960s. This means that our assumptions will now have to be changed.
In the remote rural district of Radnor a rather more detailed piece of research is being conducted by the Rural Planning Research Trust on behalf of the EEC. A closer study, using the census returns but probing them rather more deeply, indicates that in that very remote area over the past 10 years the rural population so far from declining has increased by 18 per cent. In addition, the proportion of that population in the elderly bracket is declining and the proportion of the population economically active is increasing. This again indicates that many of the assumptions that we have made about rural areas in the past 10 years are due for review. That review many considerably affect our housing policy for those areas.
I should like to hang the rest of my speech, which will be quite short, on the last document which the Association of District Councils produced in the field of rural housing in 1978. It was called Rural Recovery, and it was published in response to a request from the Countryside Review Committee. This document indicates fairly well what was being sought then in the way of changes in housing policy and we can now review the degree to which the Government have responded to them.
The association starts off by making the point, which I have already made and which other speakers have already made, that rural housing has a number of very distinctive elements about it which tend to get swamped and overlooked in a preoccupation with urban problems. That is why it is so valuable to have a debate like this and why we need to go on reminding Government departments of the special character of rural housing problems. We asked particularly in 1978 that special consideration should be given in the housing allocations to areas which have a small stock of council housing in areas where the incomes that can be earned locally are low but the cost of housing is high. In these days of financial stringency it is unreasonable to expect much response to that, but it is a point that has to be made over and over again.
In addition, and on top of that factor, there is the extra cost to the builder of transporting his labour force and his materials into remote areas, the cost of rehabilitating historic houses, which are not easy to work in and require considerable skill and craftsmanship, and the extra cost of making additions and alterations in village conservation areas—the very point that the right reverend Prelate made.
In all those connections the association asked that there should be a single block allocation to replace the three separate blocks. The Government responded to that in 1980. The advantages of having a single block under the housing investment programme are now apparent and very welcome. We have also asked that there should be four-year rolling programmes. 955 That is something which the Treasury will always resist, but I do not hestitate to ask it again, without any great expectation that I shall receive a very satisfactory answer, if any at all. In 1978 the ADC went on to ask for the cost yardstick to be eased, and are very glad that it has now been abandoned. We went on to ask that the Parker Morris standards should be advisory and not mandatory, and we are very glad that they have been abolished.
Turning to improvement of houses—the point that my noble friend Lord Swinfen was making—the ADC asked four years ago for a relaxation and an easing of the limitations and constraints on improvement grants. That has been granted and the chances now make the improvement of unfit housing in the rural areas, particularly what were originally tied agricultural cottages, very much easier. My noble friend Lord Swinfen also made the point that there are a whole lot of outlying buildings in the countryside the bringing into use of which would help considerably, but that it is difficult to do this under existing housing legislation. The association have asked in the past for rural housing improvement areas to be considered—a designation equivalent to the general improvement areas and the housing action areas in the towns—and that is something that we should like to see pursued.
Turning to resources, there is no doubt that the demand that has to be catered for is from those people who are able to rent houses, but very much wanting to own them, on the brink of ownership but not quite capable of raising the necessary finance for it. It is for that purpose that the shared ownership scheme, which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was the first to mention, has proved so useful. I am glad to say that there are 35 housing authorities now using this. The Development Commission, to which he also alluded, are prepared to allocate half a million pounds in the next two years to these schemes, and there are 11 building societies prepared to provide mortgages for this activity. So that point has been well met and is developing well.
Four years ago the ADC were asking that district councils should be able to encourage young married couples in council houses, or on their waiting lists, to buy their own homes. The Government have gone rather further than that and Parliament has agreed that they should have the right to buy their homes. That is welcome too, although I agree that the special exemptions for certain designated rural areas were necessary as well, and we were glad that the Government met us on that point during the passage of the Bill a year or so ago.
The ADC urged that the Government should take more active steps to release houses in the hands of Government departments and Government agencies. That has been acted upon with commendable speed. In the last two years, the regional water authorities have released 350 houses in rural areas, the health authorities 200, the Forestry Commission 300, and, best of all, the Ministry of Defence 5,000. That is good progress.
The ADC stressed the need for the further expansion of short-term leasing and various kinds of agency schemes. The report we are debating expresses the hope, which I think is rather unrealistic, that the 956 private owners of houses that they do not need might give them for nothing to charitable organisations. I do not think that that is going to happen on any great scale, but the North Wiltshire scheme is certainly welcome, and I am glad to say that a number of other housing authorities are operating it. As your Lordships know, this enables privately owned housing to be leased in the first instance to the housing authority and then let on by them to people of their own choosing from their waiting lists but without security of tenure. The fact that the private owner can get that house back for his own use when he wants it has the effect of bringing a great deal more housing onto the market.
I am not sure that I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, that the latest legislation on agricultural tied cottages is the best possible. What I should like to see would be agreement between the parties to introduce legislation giving effect to the recent agreement between the CLA and the NFU, which would I think lead to an improvement in the situation. Another point that I might make to the party opposite—and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, could reply to it—is that it would make an enormous difference in bringing more private housing onto the market if the party opposite would reconsider their avowed intentions to repeal the legislation on shorthold.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? There is nothing in the CLA-NFU plan that has anything to do with tied housing or agricultural housing. It relates only to the rents of farms.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord and I could have a word about that afterwards. I should like to say that this debate has been very useful in throwing light on one area of housing which tends to get overlooked, and I am most grateful to the noble Lord for introducing the debate to us today.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, this is a useful and a timely report, and a useful and a timely debate. I am personally most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for the part he played in the preparation of the report and in allowing us to debate it today. There are just four points that I should like to make. Some of them have already been touched on by other speakers. The first is that when cottages in most rural areas and villages today become vacant the usual practice of the owner, whether the owner be an individual or a landowner owning several or many cottages, is to sell that house because it is empty.
Of course if he needs it for his own operations as a farmer he may leave it empty until somebody else comes into it as a tenant, but the majority of these vacant rural houses are now sold. The reason is a simple one; if you let it regardless of the security of tenure to the tenant, the most you can hope to get in the way of rent is perhaps £500 a year—I am speaking of my own part of the world, and the figures vary in different parts of the world—whereas you may well be able to get £15,000 or £20,000 for it if you sell it. So financial prudence leads you to the sale rather than the renting of the house, quite apart from the fact that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, so rightly mentioned, that the cost of modernisation and maintenance 957 is such that it cannot be covered by any rent.
The reason why there is this disparity between the purchase price and the rent which can be obtained is not, I would suggest, primarily to be laid at the door of any legislation concerning security of tenure. It is perfectly true that that has some effect, but in my view it does not have a major effect. There are many reasons for it. There is our whole fiscal system; the incentives, the advantages given in income tax by way of mortgage relief, and various other matters of that kind which make it desirable for people, if they can do so, to buy houses rather than to rent them and make it possible for them to do so. Inflation is of course another factor which has a big effect on this. The result of this is that the supply of rented houses in rural areas, even more, I believe, than in urban areas, is fast drying up.
That leads me to my second point; what happens because of this? What happens is that those houses are now sold to people who can afford these relatively inflated prices and who can afford to modernise their house and make it attractive for present-day living, and they are no longer available to the young people just married who have lived in that particular village all their life. They cannot possibly afford the mortgage interest on the high prices that such houses command. In other words, we have a movement in rural areas and villages in the opposite direction; not a flight from the land but a movement towards rural areas of people formerly living in towns. They find it more attractive to live in these areas because transport is easy, they can get to their place of work easily and therefore the pressure on villages is increasing the whole time.
That has two effects. This movement towards the rural areas and the purchase of houses—as opposed to the letting of them, which was the habit of the past—has effects on individuals and on the community. The effect on the individuals is sad. It means that young people who have lived in a village or rural area all their lives—people born and brought up there who are used to going to the local pub, the Women's Institute, the Young Farmer's Clubs, who are members of the cricket and football clubs and who take part in village activities —are forced to move away from their friends and families and seek homes in housing estates in urban areas where for a variety of reasons they can acquire houses much cheaper than they can in their own villages and where there are far more houses to rent.
Thus, there is a hardship on the individual, in having to move away, but there is also the effect on the community as a whole. My strongly held belief is that one of the great assets of rutal life, as opposed to urban life, is that a wide mix of people is to be found in a very small population; some old, some young, some intellectual, some purely physical, some rich, some poor, some well educated, some not so well educated and so on. They all live close to each other, meeting in the village shop and post office—not so often in the village church, I am afraid; I should like to think that the church is as important a factor in village life as it was, but I am afraid it is declining—and because they meet together in all sorts of activities they get to understand each other, help each other and gain knowledge of the way other people live.
In urban life, on the other hand, although there may be neighbourhood communities which give people 958 contacts, they are less good than the contacts which occur in rural areas. In any case, invariably the urban community will be much of a muchness, with people of the same sort of backgrounds and ages and with the same sort of interests and incomes. One does not find in urban communities the vital factor which leads to an understanding of what others need and the problems they have. Indeed, I believe that one of the reasons for the problems are we facing in our social life today is that lack of understanding, and what is happening in our villages today is accentuating and accelerating that decline. It is in the national interest that that decline should be arrested.
That brings me to the final point, which is how we can arrest it. The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Beaumont, made some suggestions and I go along with them. However, I believe that basically there is only one way to overcome the problem, and that is by the provision of more houses to rent in rural areas; in other words, mainly council housing should be stepped up. There is a crying shortage throughout our rural areas of houses to rent at rents which young people can afford. More accommodation could be made available for them if more old people's homes and bungalows were built, so that people would move out of their council houses into old people's bungalows and so on, leaving room for youngsters to come along and take their place. But whatever the mix may be, the problem can be solved only by an increased supply of houses.
I am not suggesting that fresh housing estates should be built in every village throughout rural England. That would be neither realistic nor necessary. Nevertheless, planners, district councils and others should look into the matter and I support what the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said about the need for more authority to be given in all these matters to the locally elected people in rural areas, because they know what is wanted, rather than all these matters being absorbed into the sphere of central Government.
I am not referring to enormous housing estates but to estates of perhaps five, 10 or even 20 houses sited in selected villages, nucleus villages serving smaller ones in the vicinity. That would have certain economies of scale and services. It would not be absolutely ideal in that some villages would suffer and decline and perhaps become dormitory or areas for retired people, while others would grow faster. But provided they were properly sited, the effcts would spread out, and, while the local community might not be in one specific village, it would be in a group of villages. That is something which not only could but must be done very rapidly if we are to arrest the present slow but very sure and devastating decline of rural life which is going on today.
§ 4.27 p.m.
My Lords, I too join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Hylton on initiating this debate. I congratulate him and his colleagues for producing the report, more copies of which I hope are available in the Library. I must declare a small interest, being the chairman of a small housing association, a charitable organisation of the sort my noble friend mentions in the report. Through the good offices of the housing corporation, this tiny association now houses eight 959 couples and, with a little bit of luck, it will house another six couples in the course of the next year or so. Small beer, one might say, but not to those couples, almost all of whom in the housing association property, helped by national supplementary benefit of one sort or another, could not possibly have got on the local council housing list. Those people are therefore able to continue to live more or less in the areas in which they have always lived. The value of a housing association such as this—as I say, as described by my noble friend Lord Hylton—is brought out all the way through the report.
On the back cover of the report is an interesting map to which I draw, in particular, the attention of the Minister. It shows a typical village with 536 inhabitants in 1981, compared, surprisingly, with 624 in 1921. It is, of course, a hypothetical village. The figures given on the back page of the report clearly show that letting to tenants by the private house owner is going out, and has almost gone out. Whereas rented property comprised 31 per cent. of all the dwellings in the village in 1921—rented from private owners and farmers; and I imagine that that includes service accommodation—in 1981 it comprised only 18 per cent. But the owner-occupied property in the village was 64 per cent. in 1981, compared with only 11 per cent. in 1921. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, has made that point himself, showing that today people want to be owner-occupiers, if they can afford it.
I now turn to page 2 of the report, to deal with a point that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, did not make, for I suppose a great many reasons. The reason for private ownership is stated very clearly on page 2:Despite a few legislative efforts to improve the lot of the private landlord, governments more or less abandoned the private sector"—that is since the 1930s—and thereby the housing which it had supplied"—that is the 31 per cent. of let houses that I have mentioned—and recognised that privately-rented accommodation was on the way out for ordinary housing purposes"—and that must be so. I believe that that is due not only to legislation and taxation factors, but also to the fact that it does not pay. The noble Lords, Lord John-Mackie and Lord Walston, showed exactly why it does not pay.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford (who is now back in his seat) brought out the point that there are many other people in the countryside, besides those employed in agriculture, who require housing that they can afford. In fact, it is stated in the report that of all the people living in the countryside, only about 10 per cent. nowadays are directly employed in agriculture, and in these times we think in particular of those people who are perhaps out of work, or who have jobs that are not entirely agreeable to them in that they do not produce the kind of wages that they hope for. Where in the future are these people to obtain houses that they can afford? There is, for instance, the kind of house that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, was going to put on the market, and has put on the market. Perhaps it is almost a ruin, but my bet is that it would cost at least £17,000 to buy—and the report states £20,000, depending on the area. If we add to that 960 another £15,000 to £20,000, including Lord John-Mackie's central heating at, say, £2,000, then there is a £40,000 house before you have even got into it.
One has to be very rich if one wishes to live in the countryside, whether to retire there, or even work there, and I firmly believe that some form of housing association—there are many detailed in the report—could replace the stock of houses now fast drying up, if indeed they are there at all, owned by the private landlord.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has suggested that there are possible sites here and there, on farms, in-fill in the villages, owned by farmers, landowners or perfectly ordinary people who might be living near or in the local village. These might make sites for one or two houses, or even a little group of houses, from which would be formed the basis of a modest housing association of the kind that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned his diocese is already running. Perhaps it would be possible for owners of such sites to join a housing association, or even form a housing association, possibly assisted by the local council, to make the sites available free of charge. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, doubted that, but I believe that some people might make sites, or even houses, available free to an association if they could have the right to nominate tenants to go into the properties. That can be done, but it is a very grey area, and I would beg my noble friend who is to reply and his colleagues to look into the question of nominating all, if possible, or a proportion, of those people who would go into housing association properties.
Of course, we are talking here only of the charitable association properties. The non-charitable association schemes, such as those of my noble friend Lord Lonsdale, which are mentioned in the report—unfortunately he is not in his place today—are quite different. They provide housing for those who can afford to buy at a later date, or who are already in good jobs which require housing in certain places. I am talking not of those who can afford such houses, but those who can afford only to rent, probably with the aid of social security benefit of one kind or another, and who should come from the local area, or be part of the agricultural industry. Perhaps it ought to be possible for the previous owner of the property to nominate them, so that they can go into charitable housing association property. That point is brought out in paragraph 2, Chapter 4, on page 12 of the report. I hope that the noble Earl and his colleagues will consider that point to see whether something can be done to make the situation somewhat easier.
We are talking not about huge units, that are working most satisfactorily around the countryside, but about small groups, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned. In villages and other suitable places, such as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, suggested, around farms, or in hamlets, perhaps land which is not used for anything else could be made available by a beneficent owner, and the houses could be used to accommodate people, not only to their benefit, but to the general benefit of the whole of the community.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Bishopston
My Lords, I am sure that we are 961 all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this debate on what is a most important subject, especially since it affects many millions of people who live in our countryside. I think we are helped by the fact that the noble Lord is a member of the working party, and we are aided, too, by the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, who was a contributor to the working party's deliberations. In passing I must say that I am in considerable agreement with my noble friend Lord John-Mackie, and the noble Lord, Lord Walston, who covered many of the points that I have in mind. But I think it might be helpful if I were to emphasise some of the points that I consider to be of special interest. The fact that the Duke of Edinburgh has shown a special interest in this matter, as indicated by his foreword to the report, has been most encouraging.
We are considering the report of the National Federation of Housing Associations' working party, and we should express our appreciation of the initiative of the federation's officers and staff. Our thanks are also due to those who comprised the working party and to all who contributed towards the findings. Their work is not over, for they have a continuing concern. But it is for those of us who have power and influence to study the report and to do what we can to bring about urgent action, since the matter is most urgent and affects so many families in our countryside.
I am personally pleased to be taking part in the debate, because for 15 years in the other place I was honoured to represent an area of over 400 square miles, covering about 80 villages and hamlets. During that time I was also a vice-president of the Rural District Councils Association. The fact that I am a Church Commissioner, too, shows that I have some link with the views expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, in particular when he speaks of the problems of over-large vicarages in our villages. He will know, of course, that the commissioners have in mind selling some of the properties there and producing, wherever possible, houses more relevant to the needs of the clergy, no matter where they live.
The area I was honoured to represent also included Sherwood Forest, with its association with Robin Hood. I think he might have set us an example in that, if the resources cannot be increased, then more of them should be transferred from the richer areas to be allocated in greater measure to the poorer areas. I think there is a kind of response in this report in regard to that, because its conclusions begin with the claim that the working party were,struck by the anomalies and apparent inequities of the current arrangements",when they analysed the national background to rural housing problems.
They go on to suggest, of course, that the relative subsidies going into home ownership and housing to rent, to local authorities and to housing associations, are in need of fundamental overhaul. This is followed by the assertion, also expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that housing cannot be seen in isolation and is intimately linked with employment, transport, shops, post offices, health facilities and schools. We know, of course, that the absence of adequate housing results in there being fewer employment opportunities. There is also the inadequate public transport, and often 962 few facilities, so that rural residents are trapped. Younger people, who should stay and continue the traditions and the characteristics of our villages, often leave to set up home elsewhere. The present national policies, based mainly on the cash criteria, are, I believe, most destructive to our rural life. The criteria are based less than they should be on social and human need.
I liked the points made in the review in Annex IV, entitled "Portrait of an English Village" and dealing with a mythical place called Lower Middleton between 1921 and 1981, to which the noble Earl, Lord Bathurst, has made reference. There we can see the decline of the village. It mentions that the ironmonger, the cobbler, the baker and the saddler have gone; the draper's premises have become an antique shop; one grocer has closed, the other is now a teashop; the post office is now the village shop; and other business premises have closed or have been converted to other uses. This, in many ways, has not only been the change but has been the decline of our villages and the loss of some of the historic characteristics with which they have been identified over the centuries.
Apart from that list, it is likely that the village school has closed and that the children (after a fight in your Lordships' House for them not to have to pay their own bus fares) now go to the neighbouring village. I believe that, if extended, this new principle which is coming into our language, the principle of privatisation in rural villages, will destroy village life. If we look at one or two of the aspects and consequences, we shall see that if the profitable parts of our bus services are sold off to private bus operators we shall destroy public bus services, which, having to satisfy the less profitable areas, will make bigger losses, either requiring bigger subsidies or being terminated; and, of course, we know that higher fares mean that there will be less use of the services, and so the losses will mount.
Then, if our Government encourage or indeed force people to belong to private health services for which they have to pay, then of course the National Health Service in town and countryside alike will suffer, and so many patients will have no alternative but to rely on the National Health Service, which will become a run-down service. Further, if more people in our villages opt for the private sector in education (now being financed by the Government with public money) then the state schools will be deprived and many more closures will result. We all know that many schools have closed in the past because children have been taken into other areas for private education and so the schools have not been viable units. This is not only a loss of the school: it is another vital element of the village which is being seen to disappear.
So the order of the day is whether a service pays. As I say, buses are few and far between; and very soon we may find that the branch lines of British Rail will have a further scrutiny of costs, making the situation much worse and with more closures. It will bring about a greater isolation of our villages if these vital links in transport are lessened or disappear.
The report in the annex reminds us that the section of the community which has grown the most are the retired, which is up from 11 per cent. in 1921 to 39 per cent. in 1981. I am not sure that these figures are 963 exactly in line with what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, had to say, but they indicate the trend of that section of our community comprising the elderly and retired people to grow even larger in the next few years. Of course, that presents a challenge to us, not only in the urban areas but in the countryside as well, with the added difficulties of supplying the need there. So there will be a special need for the elderly, possibly with wardens to keep an eye on them.
All these factors, and many others, are part of the analysis required in dealing with rural housing problems. If we have unwittingly destroyed the community spirit, it is the price we have paid for demanding that our rural services, like others elsewhere, must pay their way in financial terms, ignoring, as so often, the vital social service role in satisfying human and family need. The report makes reference to what it calls the "up-market private development", and says that it responds, of course, to market factors. The building of homes for sale has been almost exclusively for the higher end of the market, and, in many villages, almost entirely for the retired. In many cases local villagers cannot afford to buy, particularly in competition with the more wealthy bidders. I think this was one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Walston. At a time when there are hundreds of thousands of building workers out of work, when the country needs many more houses and when housing standards need to be raised, it is interesting to look at the policies which are being pursued by the Government in relation to accommodation and to council houses in particular.
Turning to the ratio of rents to earnings, the figures based on male manual earnings show this rising in one year, 1980–81, from 6.9 per cent. to 9.3 per cent., and perhaps reaching 10.5 per cent. next April. It is of course true that the 6.9 figure may have been an historically low figure, but the new figure of 9.3 per cent., never mind the 10.5 per cent., is the highest figure recorded since 1945.
So there are even fewer resources nationally for our housing, and we know that the rural areas do not get the top priority. Indeed, the subsidies in the year 1980–81 were estimated to be £1,690 million and the subsidies for this April are estimated to be as low as £320 million. This is a very sad story— indeed, a tragic one—for housing prospects everywhere, not only in the provision of houses but also in the rents policy and the ability of people to pay the rents desired. As several noble Lords have pointed out, in rural areas, and especially in the agricultural sector, the earnings are less than they might be and certainly do not pay tribute to the most productive industry in the country at the present time, which is the agricultural industry.
There have been many other changes, too. As we know, the 1980 Act has led to the sale of houses, and so fewer alternative houses are available for let in our countryside. So it will be seen from the figures that I have quoted that in real terms the subsidies did not fall or the rents begin to rise until 1981–82, when they did so considerably, made possible by the new legislation.
The situation is particularly difficult and unfair to those in rural areas, where, as I say, the earnings are correspondingly less than those in the towns and 964 cities; and, of course, in the countryside, as we know, people are dependent on a more restricted range of local services. They have shops where they have little competition or little choice, and if they want to seek lower prices they have to travel to neighbouring areas for their shopping. These are factors of real concern.
Planning authorities and, indeed, all who are concerned with rural areas might ponder on the changes here now, and indeed yet to come with the effects of microchips and computers. The report goes quite nicely and interestingly into the history of change in our rural villages, and the saga of Lower Middleton is very interesting indeed; but we are living now in an age of micro-processors and micro-technology, where new changes can he anticipated.
These aspects must be taken into account by planners when they are planning our villages and looking at housing needs, because these new scientific marvels can link remoter areas to new scientific and technological developments further afield. They could include better library services linked to more comprehensive libraries in this country and abroad; village doctors linked with diagnostic and refined research facilities such as those enjoyed by Harley Street, with agriculture linked to ADAS and advisory services nationally, and with the possibility of sharing other public services beyond the village boundaries. All this needs careful planning.
But it is in real contrast to the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of homes in our countryside lacking the essential amenities of sanitation, of water, and all the other improvements which many of us take for granted in our towns and cities. Yet we are moving into the space age and so we shall get this very real contrast and contradiction: on the one hand, conditions which are reminiscent of the last century and, on the other hand, the possibility of linking up with the new discoveries which can make life better for everyone. This is a kind of jet lag which will provide some discomfort until we tackle the problem in a more planned and comprehensive way.
The report mentions many facilities and these have been touched upon by your Lordships this afternoon. The Housing Corporation does excellent work even with more limited funds. The corporation and housing associations must consider the advantages of earmarking a specific sum of money to help those in the villages that need finance just as much as those in rural areas. I think this point is made in the report.
I was interested in the section concerning the use of human resources. This section of the report says that everyone has something to offer, including landowners, clergy, parish councillors, shopkeepers, publicans and retired people and many others.
I was particularly interested in the reference to the National Agricultural Centre, situated as it is at the site of the Royal Show Ground at Stoneleigh and linked with the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Having been associated with the work of the National Agricultural Centre and aware of the work of the NAC Housing Association, I note the efforts of Mr. Smith-Ryland (a member of the report's working party) and Canon Peter Buckler of the NAC Housing Association who also gave evidence. I believe there would be 965 advantages in promoting rural housing throughout the country through a national co-ordinated organisation backing the official efforts.
As the report suggests, this would publicise the issue, be a source of reference to those interested, and be an organisation to whom landowners could refer sites and could mastermind actual development in villages all over the country. The pioneer development of the National Agricultural Centre Housing Association has shown up some of the difficulties. There are important points here. The noble Earl touched on them in relation to trusts. It depends how money and resources are handed over, whether direct to trusts or to housing associations. There are tax and other financial aspects involved in that.
We are indebted to the National Federation of Housing Associations for the excellent work they continue to do in helping those in rural areas, and not least for this timely report. There have been many reports over the years, including a recent report of the Labour Party called, Out of Town, out of Mind, which I think neatly sums up the problems and advocates policies to deal with the situation. That report had as many as 69 proposals. I know that many other organisations connected with the countryside have made similar surveys.
One aspect of village life on which I think there is agreement locally is the use of the word "community". It must not be taken for granted that the word "community" means there is a common interest between everybody who lives in our villages. You have people from different backgrounds and places and working at different levels. There have been many changes. The need is to try to knit all the various social strands into a sense of unity. One has only to look at the census returns. I think the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, made the point about the census. Looking at some of the census returns from the last century, the 1841, 1851, 1861 and up to 1881 returns now available, one sees the same families identified with our villages year after year, decade after decade, and, indeed, going back many centuries as parish records indicate. Indeed, in many of our villages, people who came in at the turn of the century are still regarded as foreigners.
The agricultural sector, which has a great stake in the local community, covers a range of people who, perform many tasks involved in our greatest industry. Their housing and social needs vary. Although the last Government made some change in the former tied cottage system, workers are very much dependent on local authority housing and often lack a sense of security and the kind of rights which other tenants take for granted. The figures I have mentioned about the cuts in spending nationally in regard to council housing programmes will make it even more difficult to pursue the newer legilsation which is replacing the tied cottage practice we knew in former years. There are many problems, still. One is that a worker coming up for retirement, instead of staying on, as was the practice, is often encouraged to get a council house. If the tied cottage is vacant, it is sold and the retiring worker seeks a local authority house. Sometimes workers are put in unsatisfactory accommodation or temporary accommodation, which all too often becomes permanent. We recognise some of the problems outlined by the NFU and the National Union 966 of Agricultural Workers. I think the evidence of these organisations is worth studying.
My Lords, all have a part to play, but we must realise that housing people in need is not doing them a good turn; it is not being charitable. It is a human right which all citizens are entitled to respect. When it comes to housing or, indeed, to the provision of any other essential social service, we should realise we are obliged to give people what is their right, not least because they are people—apart from the fact that if we do not, then not only do they suffer injustice but the later consequences to the community can be costly indeed. Sometimes, when one thinks about bad housing in the countryside and inadequate and overcrowded housing, and the problems of marriage and family life, one should also be estimating what may be the saving in money terms in connection with what we are going to pay out later because of the problems created by these quite inadequate conditions.
The basic need of everyone is an adequate supply of appropriate housing, tailored to suit the needs of those accommodated, at rents which people can afford and, most important, giving all the people, no matter whether they live in public or private accommodation, a sense of security. It has rightly been said on other occasions that family life is the foundation of our nation; and good housing, of course, is a basic and essential need for the foundation of our families.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, there has been an increasing awareness of the problems and needs of rural areas and communities over the past few years—even to the extent that the term "rural deprivation" used by Lord Bishopston has been coined to describe the various factors which have combined to put pressure on the social and economic basis of village life. This was ably illustrated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford in his lucid and far-seeing speech. These trends are familiar and have been debated before now in this House. Above all, there has been the steady loss of jobs in agriculture resulting from the major advances in productivity which have been acheived in farming since the second world war which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Sandford in his knowledgeable and constructive remarks. Village life is no longer, as it once was, centred on the land. In turn, this has changed the social structure of many rural communities. For example, often the young people of a village have had to leave to seek employment elsewhere, and in some cases this has been accompanied by a reverse influx of those wanting to retire in the countryside, or purchasing second homes for weekend and holiday use.
Nearer the conurbations, a different pattern emerges. In the commuter belt—which can sometimes extend surprisingly widely—villages become attractive as dormitory suburbs. This pushes up house prices and again makes it difficult for young people as first-time home buyers to stay in their local community.
Added to these problems are those caused by the loss of local services and facilities. The long-term trend—I do not wish to enter into a political argument but I should like to call this a long-term trend—has been to centralise services—health and education provision, for instance. As we are all well aware, 967 village shops face intense pressure from the cheaper prices which town supermarkets can offer. This was charmingly described in the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Hylton as the "five Ps".
These changes in living patterns are not so much a problem for those with cars—indeed, the rise in car ownership has been a major factor in this process; but such ownership has also, of course, undermined the viability of rural bus services and created serious difficulties for those who remain without access to private transport.
This, then, is the overall context within which this more specific debate takes place, and, before turning to the particular matter of rural housing, I would wish only to assure noble Lords that the Government are fully aware of these wider problems of rural areas, though I was pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, regarding the optimistic trends with which he started and closed his remarks. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will shortly be discussing these matters with representatives of the organisation "Rural Voice"—which, as noble Lords will be aware, is an umbrella group set up some 18 months ago and includes in its membership those bodies and groups principally concerned with rural affairs.
The House is indebted to my noble friend Lord Hylton, not only for raising the subject today, but for his service on the National Federation of Housing Associations' working party which produced the report we are debating. I should like to add my tributes to the noble Duke, the Duke of Edinburgh, for acting as president of this body. I hope that, in the course of my remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will find a satisfactory answer to the questions he asked and a warm response to the assurances which he required.
At a conference organised by the Royal Society of Arts in November my honourable Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction welcomed the report as a perceptive and objective assessment of the housing problems of the rural areas. Its value lies in the fact that, having clearly identified the problems, it then takes a positive and constructive approach to how they might be overcome.
The report identified six factors which, it concluded, created special difficulties for the provision of housing in rural areas. I should like to take each of these in turn. First, it suggested that planning controls are enforced more strictly in rural areas and that this inhibits the provision of housing. Decisions about individual planning applications, however, are of course a matter for the district council concerned. The Government have made it clear that they attach great importance to the preservation of the countryside, areas of outstanding and natural beauty and national parks. Green belts must be preserved, and loss of agricultural land kept to the absolute minimum. It follows that new housing development in rural areas should in most cases be in or around existing towns and villages rather than on "green field "sites. To this extent, I was very much with the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, when he referred to filling in the gaps.
My Lords, I had prepared some remarks on structure 968 plans but, as my noble friend Lord Sandford has already spoken to this, I shall omit them.
The Government have pointed out that economic activity, particularly small businesses, can do a great deal to preserve rural communities. Planning authorities have been asked to show a sensible and sympathetic attitude here. We are aware that problems can occur where the local planning authority insists on the use of special and expensive building materials. We have made it clear that controls over external appearance should only be exercised when there is a fully justified reason for doing so. Aesthetics is a very subjective matter—as we well know in this House—and local authorities should not seek to impose their tastes without good reasons. I hope that this approach will he appreciated by my noble friend Lord Swinfen.
The second and third factors which the report identifies concern the pressures on rented accommodation. So far as the private rented sector is concerned, it mentions the potential use of short-term letting arrangements to help preserve the private rented stock in good condition and advocates the use of what is known as the North Wiltshire scheme. Once again, noble Lords have spoken to this.
The Government certainly have no objections to the North Wiltshire scheme. We are as keen as the National Federation of Housing Associations to see better use made of the housing stock. But we think we have provided a better way to achieve a similar aim—that is, by encouraging the owners of empty accommodation to make it available for letting without granting lifetime security of tenure—hence the opportunities for shorthold tenancies brought about by the Housing Act 1980. Under shorthold, non-resident landlords are able to let for a fixed term of between one and five years with the certainty of regaining the possession at the end of the term if they so wish. During the term the tenants have full Rent Act protection.
We hope that more owners of empty houses in rural areas will make these available for letting on shorthold. The Labour Party's commitment to repeal shorthold can only serve to undermine confidence in the scheme and to deny accommodation to those who need it. The Government believe that shorthold can make a valuable contribution to the supply of rented accommodation in both rural and urban areas.
In the publicly rented sector, the report calls on local authorities to increase their activities in rural areas and to complement the Housing Corporation's lending programme by providing loans to housing associations. I am pleased to say that gross provision for local authority capital is being increased by some 3 per cent. for the coming financial year.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked whether guidelines can be issued to local authorities and the Housing Corporation giving greater emphasis to the solution of rural housing problems. I shall come to the Housing Corporation in a moment. Local authorities are asked to concentrate their available expenditure on those for whom it is really vital. This will include those in rural areas. However, it is a central feature of the system under which capital resources are allocated to local authorities that each authority should then be able to manage those resources in accordance with its own view of local priorities.
I would not agree with the report's conclusion that 969 council housing in rural areas is inhibited by cost control systems which are more appropriate to urban areas. Centrally prescribed standards and cost limits were dispensed with when a new system of project control was introduced in April last year. This gave local authorities much greater freedom to provide the sort of housing which would meet their individual local needs, and there is no reason why the new system should discriminate against rural housing schemes.
The housing associations' primary source of funding is the Housing Corporation. We have agreed that the gross provision for the corporation for 1982–83 should, at £556 million, be the same in real terms as this year. This means that we shall have maintained the corporation's programme at the same real level for three consecutive years, despite the pressure of public expenditure. I hope that this will go some way to alleviate Lord Beaumont's pessimism and answer Lord Bishopston's mention of limited response. It indicates the importance the Government attach to the work of housing associations.
Of this gross provision of £556 million, less will be required than in the current year to meet commitments on existing projects, so it will be possible to make some significant increases in individual parts of the programme. Returning to Lord Hylton's point, the Secretary of State determines the broad composition of the programme. But it is essentially a matter for the Housing Corporation to decide priorities between particular projects. Although the corporation has concentrated on funding associations working to relieve housing stress in urban areas, it has always tried to maintain a programme of support for rural schemes.
The fourth conclusion the report reaches is that private housing development in rural areas tends to cater mainly for the better off. It cannot be denied that young people who wish to live and work in the areas where they grew up have often found that they cannot afford to buy a new home there. Local authorities can change all that, by working in partnership with the housebuilding industry.
A recent series of presentations by the Housebuilders Federation showed how modest "starter homes" can be built under licence on local authority land and sold to people nominated by the authority—often its tenants and people on the council waiting list. I hope this plan will be welcomed by my noble friend Lord Bathurst. In this way, people from the waiting list are housed and council housing is freed for those who really need it. This is already happening in a number of rural areas and the Government hope that other authorities will capitalise on the willingness of housebuilders to undertake such schemes and follow suit. There is no reason why only young people should benefit from such schemes. At the Rural Society of Arts Conference last November, my honourable friend referred to a local authority building for sale scheme specially for the elderly in the country.
Low-cost home ownership can also be achieved through the improvement of older property for sale, or else by selling the property for "homesteading"— improvement by the purchaser. We believe that these initiatives are as relevant to the small towns and villages as to the big urban areas and we want to see as many local authorities and housing associations as possible involved in them.
970 Perhaps I could draw particular attention to the potential of "shared ownership", which my noble friend Lord Sandford mentioned—the arrangement whereby the householder buys an initial percentage share in a property and continues to pay rent on the rest, with the option later of increasing his share and ultimately becoming the full owner. I believe this arrangement has great potential for helping those who could not initially afford outright home ownership. It is certainly as relevant to the rural areas as to the cities. Housing associations have an important role in providing homes for sale on a shared ownership basis. Finance for the share retained by the Housing Association can be provided through public funds. But interest is also growing among the financial institutions for the use of private finance for these schemes. This will give much greater impetus to the growth in shared ownership projects and help many young couples towards owning their house. I think this is a scheme which will please the noble Lord, Lord Walston.
Some housing associations have even gone so far as to devise a variation of shared ownership—the deferred purchase scheme—under which the entire funding for the scheme comes from private sources. The Government warmly welcome such initiatives, and both these schemes go a long way towards some of the proposals of my noble friend Lord Bathurst.
I was pleased to note the attention and support which the working party's report gave to shared ownership. The report referred in particular to the Development Commission's involvement in housing associations' shared ownership schemes. Over the next two years the commission intends to make half a million pounds available for such schemes.
The Development Commission is helping rural housing in a number of other ways. It is involved in an experiment to provide a few craft homes—these are houses that incorporate workshop space, thus enabling the one-man business to set up and operate from home. The idea behind the experiment is to demonstrate to private developers that there is a market for this type of building and that it can be a financially attractive proposition to undertake. If this can be proved, it is hoped that the private sector will then step in and carry on with the good work.
In addition to providing these workshops the commission is also going ahead with a partnership scheme with the Housing Corporation under which it will finance workshop space attached to some houses sponsored by the corporation. On top of this, the commission is investigating ways of helping district councils with the cost of acquiring and servicing sites in villages that might otherwise be too expensive to develop for low-cost private housing. The intention here is to sell the sites under licence to a private developer to encourage more starter homes to be built.
I now want to turn to the fifth problem identified in the report, housing for the elderly in rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was particularly concerned about the number of elderly people coming out of tied accommodation over the next 12 years. I am sure that in drawing up and reviewing their local housing strategies local authorities will pay close attention to particular problems which may arise in their areas.
Sheltered accommodation provided by local authorities and by housing associations has an important part 971 to play here, but it is as well to remember that many elderly people prefer to stay in their present homes, even though those homes may have become difficult to manage. To help them, the home improvement grant system has been made more flexible so that local authorities can, for example, give grants for small improvements such as an improved heating appliance. The rates of grants have been increased in priority cases, and more generous adaptation grants for disabled people are now available. Repair grants, at priority rates, have been introduced for older dwellings, many of which are occupied by elderly people; and priority rates of grant have also been introduced for elderly people to insulate their homes. Grants are also now available to tenants in both the public and private sectors, including tenants in tied accommodation. These, and other measures provided for in the Housing Act 1980, will help to make home improvement grants more effective in tackling the problems of substandard housing.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, expressed concern about the extent of the problem in rural areas. The figures he quoted, however, are taken from the English House Condition Survey of 1976. A further house condition survey was conducted on a similar basis in England in 1981, the results of which we hope will be available later this year. In particular we shall be looking at the figures for the rural areas to see how they compare. The noble Lord may rest assured that the Government will take the results of the 1981 survey into account when the opportunity occurs.
The starter home and shared ownership initiatives which I referred to earlier are also very relevant to the needs of the elderly. One variant of shared ownership which is particularly suitable for elderly people who find that their existing home has become too large for their present needs but who still want to remain home owners, is Leasehold for the Elderly. The benefits of such schemes are recognised in the National Federation of Housing Associations report and the Government are giving them every encouragement.
I come now to the problem of ensuring that new development in rural areas is not held up for lack of water and sewerage supplies. Connections to the water and sewerage systems are more expensive for rural areas, and this can pose problems for water authorities, who have to accommodate other pressing demands within their capital programmes. However, it is always open to a developer to requisition a public sewer or public water supply in advance of a water authority's capital programme, and to contribute towards the cost if he is satisfied that this would not affect the overall viability of his development.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford mentioned gipsies. Perhaps I could just say to him that the 1968 Caravan Sites Act lays a duty on local authorities to provide adequate gipsy accommodation in their areas. To this end the Government provide from Exchequer funds 100 per cent. reimbursement of the costs incurred for this purpose. In the present financial year £2.7 million have been spent on this and the Government intend that this programme of assistance should be continued in future years.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned as part of Liberal policy the matter of second homes. Perhaps 972 I might just say that the Government do not consider the acquisition of houses in rural areas as second homes to be such a severe problem as to warrant the return to the days when authorities were free to buy properties without central Government control, thus denying potential house owners the opportunity to buy their own homes. It has been argued that planning control should be introduced over second homes, but we do not believe that this is a national problem. The Government recognise that problems can arise in certain localities, but they are not convinced that local authorities' existing powers are insufficient to deal with the situation.
To conclude, I am afraid I have taken up a great deal of your Lordships' time but other noble Lords have spoken with such brevity that they have left me ample time. As we have heard, and as 1 have tried to stress, the housing problems of rural areas take on a variety of forms. The working party's report has helped to point the way forward by demonstrating that the solutions available are no less varied. They will test the ingenuity of all those involved in the housing market: central Government—and I hope that my remarks will have underlined the real interest which central Government have in this—local government, housing associations, private sector landlords, the house-building industry, the financial institutions, the occupants of the houses and the statutory undertakers. On the evidence so far available, I am sure that ingenuity is not lacking in any of these quarters. I am equally sure that all concerned will have been stimulated by this debate this afternoon.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It was very encouraging to notice the general welcome that seemed to be given to the report, and I am sure that the National Federation will be delighted about that. May I say a particular word of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, who was so pleased with the format and presentation of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, was entirely right to emphasise the question of second homes and the option of self-build schemes, which is available in some places. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, drew our attention to the impact of new technology on the location of jobs. I only hope that the rather alarming, speculative view of the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, on the combination of high technology and rural squalor will not be borne out in practice.
I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Avon, for his very comprehensive reply and, in particular, for repeating the welcome to the report which was originally given by the Minister of Housing. I am very glad to hear that there will be further conversations between the DoE and the umbrella organisation, which is known as Rural Voice. We were all most interested to hear what the Government had to say on the question of starter homes and shared ownership and, indeed, on some of the points that were brought out concerning the elderly.
My only regret is that the Government may not yet have taken on board the urgent need for quite a lot more rented housing for those who have no prospect of buying and who will not, at the end of the day, be 973 benefited by any of these special hybrid, self-build, cost-sharing or shared ownership schemes, valuable as they are. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, brought this out particularly well. So with those words, my Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.