HL Deb 16 July 1991 vol 531 cc99-102

2.54 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they accept the need, identified by the Rural Development Commission, to provide 80,000 affordable houses in rural areas over the next four years; and what progress has been made to date.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, housing need is not easy to quantify. Much depends on how it is defined and what assumptions are made about house prices, interest rates and incomes. Nevertheless, we believe this estimate to be overstated and we shall shortly commission research which will help us to produce our own estimate. We have made good progress with a variety of measures designed to improve the provision of affordable housing in rural areas.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is it not a fact that there have been at least three studies of the matter by different bodies? Is it not now high time that far greater resources were made available to solve the problem?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may mention some of the actions which the Government are taking which involve considerable expenditure of resources. These are: special housing corporation rural programmes for small villages below 1,000 population, with the provision of 2,250 houses by 1993–94; special capital allocations to rural local authorities of another £50 million; support for rural housing trusts to set up small rural-based housing associations; planning concessions allowing low cost rural housing on sites where commercial housing would not be permitted under the exceptions policy; and subsidised shared ownership schemes in rural areas no longer required to allow staircasing up to the full 100 per cent. We are about to commission research which will properly tell us whether resource and provision match needs.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that despite her long list of measures being taken, anyone who lives in the countryside knows that there is a great shortage of affordable housing? The reason is that houses which were affordable are being bought by richer people who wish to live in the country. Therefore, local people cannot afford them. The situation is quite serious. Will the Minister consider, for example, allowing councils to retain houses for retirement, instead of making them subject to sale on request?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is not part of the Government's policy to inhibit the right to buy housing. However, we have put an enormous number of measures in place. We are not complacent about the issue. The reason that research has been commissioned is that we believe that there is a gap between provision and need. These measures, only some of which I have mentioned, are being put in place to make sure that housing is more affordable for young people in rural areas.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, my noble friend said that research would be commissioned. Will she make inquiries into the demand and need for specially designed accommodation for the physically disabled? They do not just live in towns, some live in the country.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. It is very much the responsibility of the local authority not only to identify housing for people to rent or buy but also to make sure that the housing is appropriate to the needs of the people occupying it.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government thought that the number of houses quoted was in excess of the real need. Is she aware that the people at the sharp end dealing with the problem—the local authorities out in the country—know that the need exists now? The measures taken by the Government may be desirable and the figures possibly an overestimate of the need. However, that need is there now and the delay through the Government waiting for this report can only exacerbate a serious situation. Action is required immediately, not in the future.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I admitted that we believe that there is a gap between the provision and the need. I also catalogued the number of measures in place now which are being implemented by housing associations, local authorities and government intervention. I believe that the measures are working. Part of the research will determine the effectiveness of the policies. However, there is no neglect of the situation and certainly no complacency.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking on behalf of the Government that the research will be published?

Baroness Blatch

; My Lords, there is no difficulty about that whatever. It will be published.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, as a member of the Rural Development Commission, I assure my noble friend that the estimate of 80,000 houses is the lowest of the various estimates to which the development commission had access. Have the Government considered the possibility of using some of the housing available through closure of the air bases, many deep in rural areas? Perhaps it could be arranged that at least some could be sold by the American or British governments to housing associations for use as low cost social housing.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend again makes an important point. The air bases to which he refers may become surplus and their future remains under consideration by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment. We are aware of the implications of housing there and the impact of closures in rural areas. I am afraid that it would be precipitate of me to determine the outcome of the negotiations.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, while we welcome any government research into rural housing, I am sure that the Minister is aware that Action for Communities in Rural England, the Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils—the previous speaker referred to this point—the Rural Development Commission and the Institute of Housing have all said that between 80,000 and 100,000 houses are needed in rural areas. It seems likely that the government research will confirm that position. If that is The case, will the Minister agree at the very least to raise the basic credit approval—that is, the permission to borrow—of local authorities, because in the past 10 years the completions of affordable housing by local authorities and housing associations have fallen to a quarter of the level of 10 years ago?

Bareness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot predict the outcome of the research. I am afraid that, like many of her noble friends, the noble Baroness is absolutely convinced that the only providers of local housing are local authorities. I have said on a number of occasions that local authorities constitute one element of the providers of housing. There has been a positive switch to housing associations in this regard. The survey that the noble Baroness referred to—ACRE and the RDC hold the same view on this survey as it was the RDC that commissioned ACRE to carry out the survey—was a small one and it was conducted in a highly unscientific manner. In some cases people were merely asked whether they would be interested in occupying subsidised houses in rural areas if that housing were available. If the answer was yes, those people became a statistic in the survey. Research must be conducted in a much more scientific manner.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope the Minister will listen a little more carefully in future to the comments of my noble friend Lady Hollis. My noble friend made it quite clear that her statistics referred not just to local authority housing but to provision by housing associations. Is it not the case that despite the minor measures that the Minister has predictably announced, over the past three or four years government activity has been devoted to reducing both security of tenure and security of affordable rents? That affects rural housing at least to the same extent as it affects urban housing.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness was referring to allocations made by local authorities and how they had decreased over time. I was simply saying that local authorities were one part of the provision. There has not been a decrease of one-quarter in the total housing provision over the period of time the noble Baroness referred to. Research will of course either confirm or deny the information that ACRE has already supplied.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, will my noble friend consider using the accommodation that has been made surplus by the closure of air force bases for service personnel who are leaving the forces, as those people often have to enter bed and breakfast accommodation when they have to leave their married quarters?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I refer my noble friend to the reply I gave to my noble friend Lord Marlesford. It is a matter between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the gap between the need for affordable housing and its provision has progressively increased ever since this Government entered office? Does she not agree that her reference to local authorities having these housing responsibilities is entirely dishonest because the Government—

Noble Lords


Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that her reference to local authorities having these housing responsibilities is entirely wrong because the Government have deliberately restricted financially the powers of local authorities to replace the housing that has been sold off privately?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I hope I have never been dishonest at the Dispatch Box. On any occasion where I may have misled the House I have always written to the noble Lord concerned or I have apologised before the House. I have no intention of being dishonest. I totally refute any criticism that the Government are being dishonest in these matters. There has been a positive switch to housing associations. The latter have been hugely successful in this regard. Housing association provision combined with the right-to-buy policy and the special part that local authorities play in making provision for housing have meant that real attempts are being made to address the problems of rural housing. I believe the research we have commissioned will add to that bank of information to enable provision to be matched to need.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, while the research continues, will the Government urgently consult with the Rural Development Commission and the Housing Corporation so that at the end of the day effective progress may be achieved?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my department is always in constant dialogue with the organisations the noble Lord mentioned.