HL Deb 23 May 1984 vol 452 cc223-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why only 22 applications out of 130, for the designation of "Rural Areas" under the Housing Act 1980, have been accepted.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, to date 21 areas in England have been designated as rural areas under Section 19 of the Housing Act 1980 as a result of applications from 129 authorities. These are in addition to the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, which are automatically covered. Section 19 was intended as a protection for those areas in which housing sold under the right to buy might subsequently be resold for use as second or holiday homes.

In considering applications for designation, my right honourable friend has had particular regard to rurality and to the incidence of second homes, although all factors advanced by applicant authorities have been carefully considered. Only a relatively small proportion of the authorities which applied were able to satisfy us that the incidence of second homes in their areas warranted designation.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I should like to ask the Government whether the famous safeguard extracted from the Government by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in 1980 has not proved to be something of an illusion. So very few rural areas have been defined—less than one-quarter of those asked for. Are the Government really saying that there are no rural areas outside about six or seven counties in England—and none in Wales?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I am not saying that at all. In our consideration of this matter, we have taken the view—and this was explained in a Written Answer given by my honourable friend the then Minister for Housing on 12th February 1981—that the incidence of second homes is a relevant factor, having regard to the overall purpose of Section 19.

Your Lordships may recall that whereas the basic provisions of Section 19 were in the Bill when it was introduced in 1979, the pre-emption sub-clause was added to it because of concern expressed in the debates on the Bill on the second homes issue. In designating these areas, the Government, with scrupulous attention to detail, have followed the wishes of your Lordships and those of Members in another place who were active at the time on this issue. So far as Wales is concerned, eight areas have been designated from applications by 26 local authorities.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that since national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are designed to protect the open countryside, it follows that scarcely any housing is to be found in those places? Does he not agree that this cuts down the amount of housing available in rural areas?

Also, can the Minister be more specific on the definition of rural areas? I do not believe that it has been made clear by him today or, in the past, by his colleagues arguing for the Housing and Building Control Bill. If there is a criterion which the Government have and which we do not know, why has it not been published in the same way that criteria covering other subjects have been published, in Guidelines from time to time?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as a rough rule of thumb we looked at population density in deciding whether an area is rural or not. On making representations for the implications for rural areas of the right to buy proposals before the Bill was introduced the then National Council for Social Services used an illustrative figure of two persons per hectare or less to identify rural areas. My right honourable friend has used a similar approach in the decisions he has made.

As far as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are concerned, they are areas which are not only rural but which have a high number of second homes. As I explained in answer to the supplementary question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the Government take a two-pronged approach to deciding which areas should be designated under Section 19.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, did the noble Lord use in his original Answer the word "rurality"? If he did, will he tell us with what authority he used that word? And is he not ashamed of so doing?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am constantly ashamed, but I understand that this has become a technical term to describe rural areas. If I am wrong, then naturally I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, has not the Secretary of State refused to designate as rural areas a great number of quite substantial areas which are in every sense rural in the common acceptance of that term? Will he consider in particular the area in North Yorkshire between the national park and the small coastal towns which has been refused designation? Can the noble Lord explain why?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, when considering applications for designation Ministers must always exercise a judgment after considering all the evidence and information available. I am well aware of the case to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, refers; that of the hinterland of Scarborough. I can tell him that my honourable friend, the then Minister for Housing and Construction, carefully considered this application but concluded that on the information available at the time designation as a rural area was not appropriate. I would add that if circumstances have changed there is no reason why Scarborough should not re-apply for this designation.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, as one of the policies of the Government is, I am glad to say, to support agriculture in every way they can, does not the noble Lord agree that it would be wise to have some revision of designation since obviously it does not cover anything like the rural areas that we in the agricultural industry know very well?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government naturally keep their legislation and proposed legislation under constant review. I do not see any opportunity at the moment for introducing the sort of change that my noble friend suggests.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in the kind of revision that the noble Baroness has asked for, would the Government take into account the higher than average levels of house prices? Secondly, will they also bear in mind the difficulty of replacing council houses in villages once they have been sold for all sorts of good reasons?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, earlier I referred to "all relevant considerations" being taken into account. Should the considerations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, become relevant they will be taken into account.