§ 2 pm
§ Andrew George (St. Ives)
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are right. This is a very important subject, and I am delighted to have been successful in securing the opportunity to kick off the debate. I noticed that last week the chief executive of the Countryside Agency, encouraging the Government to look again and give a better definition to the matter of rural proofing in respect of housing, commented in a press release circulated jointly with the Local Government Association:All our evidence points to the fact that the lack of suitable affordable housing is one of the biggest barriers to keeping rural communities sustainable.Speaking as a representative for a Cornish seat—I also represent the Isles of Scilly—I would say that that is certainly true, and that it is the biggest barrier. Enabling people to have a home of their own, and ensuring that there is adequate affordable housing for local people in rural areas, is key in the maintenance of rural communities.
Rural areas face a crisis as great as that of the late 1980s, when we experienced a sustained period during which private house prices spiralled upwards out of control. They then fell. In the early 1990s many people were caught in negative equity if they had bought at the crest of the market. I am not sure that on this occasion the market will necessarily behave in that way. Many people in rural Britain will experience sustained levels of high house prices that are completely out of kilter with rural wages for many years to come. Therefore, the problem will not resolve itself through the activities of the marketplace. That is why it will require important Government intervention, and I am pleased that the Minister is here today.
Together with local authorities, the Local Government Association and others, I was of course shocked that the Government announced their intention to withdraw local authority social housing grants. Those were significant in providing for a large number of schemes in rural areas. The Government gave local authorities only seven weeks' notice of the withdrawal taking elect prior to the beginning of April this year. I do not doubt that it was in anticipation of the debate, and the fear of the mauling that I would give the Government, that they announced last week a three-month transitional arrangement, leading from the beginning of the next financial year. Although that is welcome, I shall argue that the Government need to do a great deal more if they are to resolve or begin to make any kind of inroads into the problems experienced by rural areas.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The withdrawal of the local authority housing grant is important, as the hon. Gentleman said. In fact, the situation was worse than he suggested because it was within three weeks of the statutory date for the setting of some local authorities' budgets. Undoubtedly some local authorities will be forced to set a supplementary 31WH council tax part of the way through their financial year. As I understand it, as of yesterday councils still had not been officially informed of the withdrawal of the grant. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the matter has been handled incompetently?
§ Andrew George
It is certainly true that representatives from local authorities in my constituency made strong representations at the time of the announcement and made exactly that point about budgets being set and programmes being largely put in place. It was anticipated that there would be a continuation of the kind of affordable housing developments that local authorities in many rural areas desperately require, but the rug was pulled from under their feet. No doubt the Minister will want to address the points that that hon. Gentleman and I have made in his reply.
Let me explain the extent of the problem in Cornwall. When we are talking in terms of generalities, sometimes we miss specific points about local areas. I will talk about my constituency, which includes west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, where there is a significant and large private housing market. I call it that because I do not like using the phrase "open" housing market. The market is not open to all local people. It is important to call it a private housing market. It is a bit like a golf club: one can enter only if one has certain credentials and can pay the membership fee.
The private housing market is extremely restrictive in places such as Cornwall. House prices have doubled across much of Cornwall over the past three years—no doubt that is reflected across much of the rest of the country. There is a serious affordability gap. Since records began, Cornwall has been at the bottom of the earnings league table. The mismatch between earnings and house prices in Cornwall—especially the far west of Cornwall—is probably greater than it is in some areas of the south-east, where house prices are significantly higher. There is a significant problem because of the affordability gap between earnings and house prices, which is not properly taken into account in the way in which housing grants and investments are made.
On the Isles of the Scilly, the problem is even more significant. Earnings are no higher than they are on the mainland, yet house prices are similar to those in London and the south-east. It is difficult to find a flat with two bedrooms—a leasehold property—for less than £250,000, and that is the most bare and basic property that one can possibly gel:. House prices are astronomically high in such areas.
For people who cannot even begin to look at the private market, which is the vast majority of people on ordinary local wages, the question is where else to look. Of course, they look to the private rented sector. The private rented sector in Cornwall accounts for less than 10 per cent. of the housing stock—it is rather lower than that across most of Cornwall. That figure is much higher in many urban areas, but in areas such as west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly the private rented sector has to compete with what sensible landlords wanting to maximise the return that they get from the investment of their capital will consider, which is the holiday trade. 32WH Many properties are lost to the holiday trade because one can get a far better income and there is also the security of being able to retain the property regularly if that is required. For example, one might want to sell it into the private market, given that house prices are very acceptable to someone with a spare property.
The private rented sector therefore affords little opportunity for people looking for accommodation. Rents in the far west of Cornwall are astronomically high. People who are entitled to housing benefit often receive a benefit level that in no way makes up the full cost of their rent. Where else can they live? They look to the social rented sector, which used to be called council housing. In my constituency, both Kerrier and Penwith have gone through stock transfers and all the properties are, one way or another, the responsibility of housing associations. On the Isles of Scilly, few properties—there are little more than 100 of them—are council houses. Even there, somewhere between 11 and 12 per cent. of the stock consists of social rented units.
According to a recent parliamentary answer, in urban areas 19 per cent. of stock consists of social rented units, but in many towns and metropolitan areas the social rented sector is more significant than that. The opportunities to get rented accommodation in urban and suburban areas are therefore significantly greater than in many rural areas.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am following my hon. Friend's speech with great interest because his experience is paralleled in my constituency. I wonder whether he has seen the figures in the Western Morning News, which has done an admirable job in bringing the matter to the attention of local decision makers, demonstrating the effect of the forced sales of properties, which local authorities did not want to sell, under the right-to-buy scheme. North Cornwall district council, for example, currently has a waiting list of 1,600 persons, but it has had to sell off 1,247 properties in recent years, which is a major discrepancy. In Restormel, there are 2,700 people on the waiting list while 1,939 properties have been sold off. Does my hon. Friend accept that any extension to the right to buy affordable housing would be devastating in a rural area such as Cornwall?
§ Andrew George
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes the point well. In North Cornwall, where only 3,500 properties are available for rent through the local authority, given that there are more than 1,600 people on the waiting list, nearly half the properties could be immediately let again to people on the waiting list.
Penwith went through the process of stock transfer in 1994. As a result, it is debt free and is therefore entitled to levels of housing grant for further capital investment to which many other local authorities are not entitled. With the money from the stock transfer, and the extra money that it is able to obtain from the Government through local authority social housing grant and other sources, it is able to engage in a social housing building programme that many other local authorities would envy. Last year, it built 40 properties of which it is particularly proud as a result of its investment, but it had to sell 45 of its properties under the right to buy. It is therefore running as fast as it can in order to slide backwards, which is the nature of the unsatisfactory system.
33WH Many of my constituents in Penwith find themselves with no alternative but to be housed in entirely unsatisfactory bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Many of them come to see me in my casework surgery. I know that many hon. Members who have experienced the problem feel, like me, absolutely helpless. One can ensure that the system works fairly on behalf of one's constituent, but one knows full well that there are not enough private rented and social rented properties in the marketplace. We are talking about families who have to uproot themselves from their local communities and live in bed-and-breakfast establishments in which people's children are often not even in neighbouring rooms. The accommodation can be small and cramped, which is totally unsatisfactory, and located far from people's workplaces and their children's schools. The issue increasingly affects local authorities.
I know that the Government have set a target that within the next year local authorities must no longer have people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In Penwith, 80 households are living in such accommodation and I doubt whether an authority such as Penwith district council, even if it works heroically during the next year, can achieve the Government's target. I have serious concerns about that.
I have talked specifically about west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, but rural areas in general have fewer properties available in the rented sector and people in such areas have to wait longer to find accommodation. A parliamentary answer to me from the Minister on 27 February stated at column 732W that people in urban authorities must expect to wait 370 days to be housed, but in rural areas they must expect to wait 426 days. That is a significantly longer wait. No one can say that the housing crisis in this country is an urban one when people on waiting lists in rural areas must wait longer. If people in my constituency thought that they would have to wait only 426 days, they would be pleased.
There are fewer opportunities for people in rural areas. There is also the issue of invisibility. In deep rural areas, people who want to remain living in their community because they are farm workers or work in the area know that all the council properties have been sold off and that there is no point in trotting along to the local authority or housing association and putting their name down on the waiting list. They also face the added problem of invisibility. What is the point of waiting for a bus on a Sunday if there is no bus? What is the point of putting their name down on a local authority waiting list if there are no houses in the vicinity in which they want to live? People in rural areas on the Isles of Scilly and mainland Cornwall sometimes find themselves living in cramped accommodation with three generations in one household if they want to stay in the vicinity. Because of the informality of rural areas, people tend to be tolerant of such arrangements and do not sleep on park benches. Homelessness is hidden in rural areas, but it certainly exists.
If the Government are saying that they want to invest in the completion of affordable new units to meet that need, I would point the Minister to a parliamentary answer on 6 February at column 418W. In reply to a question about how many social rented unit completions in local authorities are defined as rural, the answer was—I shall give only two figures for 34WH comparison—5,514 in 1989 and 2,021 in 2002, a significant drop of more than 60 per cent. There are significant difficulties in rural areas and the Government are not keeping up with that need, which is increasing.
§ Mr. Tyler
My hon. Friend will recall that in the White Paper on rural affairs in 2000 the Government gave a commitment to double the Housing Corporation programme for rural housing in 2003–04 and in so doing to provide a total of 3,000 affordable homes a year in small settlements and to provide a total of 9,000 homes a year throughout all rural districts. He will also recall that just four months after publication of that White Paper the Government's implementation plan downgraded that commitment to just 1,100 homes in 2001–02 and 160 in 2002–03. Does he accept that the problems in Cornwall to which he has rightly referred—he and I have a direct personal interest in the matter—are reflected all over rural Britain?
§ Andrew George
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a good point and no doubt the Minister will wish to address that serious concern. We want to support the Government if they intend to match their words with actions in rural areas. There are concerns—perhaps the Minister can reassure us on this—that the Government's primary focus on housing is a belief that there is only one region with a housing problem, which is the south-east and London, and that there is little need for action beyond that. People are getting that impression, although I hope that that is wrong. Perhaps the Minister will address that.
I must congratulate the Government—the Minister will be pleased to hear it—on having listened to a campaign, in which I have been much involved, to bear down on the large number of second homes in rural areas. That includes withdrawing the absurdity, which some people find offensive, of spending more than £200 million a year subsidising the wealthy through a 50 per cent. council tax rebate on their second homes when, as I have pointed out, thousands upon thousands of people live in appalling situations such as the bed-and-breakfast arrangements that I described. That is clearly unacceptable. That£200 million could be far better spent meeting the needs of local people in rural areas. If we want to spend Government money, that is a more effective use for it.
I was pleased that one of the Minister's predecessors, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), in a debate with me on 9 February 2000, although successive Ministers had previously failed to accede to my request to review the 50 per cent. rebate, put down his notes—I hope that the Minister will follow that precedent—saying that he was no longer willing to read from the notes given to him by his civil servants and that he would examine the provision. As a result, we had a change in the White Paper on rural areas in November 2000. I congratulate the Government on having listened to the case and made that change.
However, I urge the Minister to look again at how the receipts from the withdrawal of that council tax rebate are used. Local authorities, under the Local Government Bill, can increase council tax on second homes only to 90 per cent., not to 100 per cent. If the money is to address the problems created by second home ownership in rural areas, the Government should 35WH ensure that local authorities can direct it at social housing. It should not be withdrawn and used for other local government purposes. I urge the Minister to listen to the many authorities directly affected by high levels of second home ownership and ensure that the money is kept within the billing authorities. The Government should then urge billing authorities to direct the money at social housing.
§ Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, but he will be aware that the local economy in Cornwall is greatly reliant on tourism. As one who spends his Whitsun week in Cornwall—perhaps in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—I would not want to be deprived of the ability to rent holiday accommodation. There is a difficult balancing act to be performed. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any research that shows what proportion of receipts from holiday lets go into the Cornish economy rather than into the pockets of landlords who, perhaps, live primarily in London, the south-east or elsewhere?
§ Andrew George
I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is a distinction between second homes and holiday homes. Holiday homes pay business rates, not council tax. However, the 140-night rule enables people to net an income for 140 nights and still pay council tax. Many people find that even more offensive. There are many second homes used as holiday homes that produce a great deal of income.
The hon. Gentleman, by implication, is absolutely right. Where those second home owners live elsewhere, as many of them do in the case of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—where about a quarter of properties are second homes—that money goes out of the local economy to be spent elsewhere. If people are not living in an area, they cannot support the local shop and local facilities. Of course, they spend money on improving their properties. However, we would prefer to see the limited supply of accommodation available in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly being used to meet the area's needs and not used purely for recreation and investment. Such secondary purpose; will be acceptable only after all the local housing need has been met. At present, however, they are unacceptable. I urge the Government to consider changing the use class order for second homes purely for the lifetime of a particular occupancy in order to discourage further second home ownership. That would give local authorities powers to deal with those issues.
I want to draw my comments to a conclusion as others wish to speak. I urge the Government to address a few issues of future work. The first is exception sites. In rural areas under planning policy guidance note 3, which was introduced by the last Conservative Government, there has been a complete change in the ethos of the planning system. The change was in accepting that planning could take account of the user as well as the use of land. That policy allowed local authorities to discriminate in favour of local housing need in developments on the edges of villages and rural settlements. That is very welcome, as it has enabled a few—a very few—schemes to meet local housing needs. The problem in developing 36WH them is matching the money with the planning opportunities so that landowners understand that they are not subsidising the scheme; rather it is the planning system that is enabling the low land price. There is a distinction between a small multiple of agricultural value and full development value, which in places such as west Cornwall can be up to £500,000.
That subsidy comes in through the planning system and enables social housing to be developed. I urge the Government to consider ways of strengthening that policy in order to encourage local authorities to use it; otherwise, on sites on which there is a cross-subsidy, there will be bungalows all over the hills. If we want to retain our valuable countryside, the Government should recognise that we cannot have a let-rip planning policy in rural areas in the hope that a small proportion of those properties will meet an affordable housing need.
Secondly, I urge the Government to take a second look at the question of second homes to ensure that the receipts are properly spent to meet a social housing need. The Government should also look at planning policy and at a change in the use class order for the lifetime of the occupancy of a property.
Thirdly, I urge the Government to look again at developing what I call the twilight market: those who cannot get council or housing association properties and who cannot make the enormous leap into private market housing but who could go somewhere in between. That could be through shared equity or leasehold schemes. I know that many housing enablers, housing authorities and housing associations have very imaginative ways of helping that group of people. I urge the Government to invest in such schemes to ensure that the golden share can be retained for perpetuity and that there are constraints on market equity schemes in market town sites.
I ask the Government to extend the approach that they have adopted in the south-east of England on the right to buy, key worker housing and investment in social housing so that rural areas are given the same priority that the Government have given to the southeast and London.
§ Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)
I start by thanking the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for introducing the debate. It is not the first time that these issues have been discussed either in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall. It is a very important issue, and, although I realise that important debates are taking place in the Chamber, it is a shame that this debate is so poorly attended. I must own up to feeling disappointed that representation on my side is not impressive; it may be thought impressive because I am on my feet, but it is not impressive in numbers.
There has been much discussion in recent years about what matters most in the countryside. Frankly, nothing matters more than housing, especially the provision of affordable housing. The future of rural communities depends on it. In fact, a significant increase in the provision of affordable housing is needed. The recent decline in rural communities is a direct result of the loss of affordable housing to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I shall try to substantiate those remarks.
The Rural Development Commission estimated that between 1985 and 1990, some 91,000 homes in the countryside were sold under right-to-buy legislation. It 37WH further estimated that in the next six years, about 80,000 homes would have to be built to meet demand. In fact, as few as 17,700 were built, which has left a significant deficit. The market in what was once socially rented accommodation brought about an influx of commuters, retirees and people wanting to buy holiday homes. There is nothing wrong in that, or in people exercising their right to buy if they can afford to do so, but the direct consequence of social housing stock not being replaced has been an exodus of people who have been priced out of their communities.
It may come as a surprise to discover that 25 per cent. of people living in the countryside are living in poverty or on the margins of poverty. According to the RDC, 40 per cent. of people living in the countryside cannot afford to own a home. That puts into stark context the impact on rural communities of the wholesale disposal of affordable housing.
Between 1971 and 1996, there was population growth of 24 per cent. in the countryside. That compares with national growth of only 6 per cent. According to the Countryside Agency, 25,000 new households a year in the countryside are formed through inward migration; and 25,000 new households have formed themselves from existing communities. However, no housing provision has been made for many of those new households.
I suspect that the figures have not changed a great deal since, but in 1999 about 77 per cent. of homes in urban communities were owned or mortgaged by the occupier. That figure is 86 per cent. in rural communities. That means that only 14 per cent. of homes in rural communities are available for rent, compared with 23 per cent. in urban neighbourhoods.
The lack of affordable housing has far-reaching consequences. Young people who are forced to migrate to the towns, either to the local market town or further afield, take with them the children who would keep the village school going, and they take their custom from the village shop, the post office, the pub and the church—all of which are landmarks of community life. Those who replace them in the homes that they may once have hoped to rent, but which are now available only on the open market, typically do not have children of primary school age; and they shop and conduct business near their places of work or, increasingly, online. Housing shortages also have a knock-on effect on the business community and the rural economy, because a vital source of labour has been lost.
It is a vicious circle. Community breakdown leads to increasing difficulties in securing sustainability, and that loss of sustainability leads to further community breakdown. We need to reverse that process. I believe that it can be done, but it requires concerted and more determined action than we have seen over the past few years.
I welcome the Housing Corporation's target, mentioned by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who has left his seat. The corporation plans to provide 9,000 new affordable homes in rural settings by 2003–04. That is not a long way short of the Countryside Agency's target of 10,000. The situation is not as bad as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because the Housing Corporation has exceeded its targets in the rural programme, but he was right to point out that 38WH currently only 1,600 homes a year are being provided in settlements of fewer than 3,000 people. I believe that we need at least to double that figure. Moreover, we need to ensure that those homes are provided where they are needed, and not just in the south or the south-east. Those are the target areas established by the Housing Corporation, but housing must be provided where it is needed—that is the key. Unfortunately, until now the planning system has been too inflexible and too rigid to assess housing need properly or to meet it when it is identified. Planning officers are often more committed to development control than to the more creative discipline of planning.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
The hon. Gentleman says that there is concern about the fact that the Housing Corporation has primarily identified the south-east as a target area. Surely he would have been encouraged in the year 2000, when the Government White Paper identified a severe shortage of affordable housing in the west midlands. The Housing Corporation, however, seems to be ignoring the fact that that problem was identified two years ago.
§ Peter Bradley
I am sure that the Housing Corporation would dispute the fact that it is entirely ignoring the problem. As we are all aware, the greatest pressure, particularly for key members of the labour force, is in the south and the south-east. In that respect, I am arguing not that resources should be diverted away from the south and the south-east but that they should also be provided to those regions that need them, including the west midlands.
I was referring to the role of planning and planners. I have said many times, because I believe it, that planning can be a very creative engine of social change. Too often, however, it has become bogged down in development control and heavily weighted—too heavily, in my view—towards protecting the environment against the interests of the people who live in it. A balance must be struck, but, too often, it has not been.
§ Andrew George
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that for an exceptions policy to be successful in rural areas, it is important not only to adopt a rigid and strict planning policy but to stick rigidly to it? If a planning authority fails to do that, and shows too much flexibility, there is little likelihood that landowners will want to deal with an exception site, because there will always be the possibility of achieving a much larger value on their land.
§ Peter Bradley
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but I would make one point. It is clear that exception sites have often made an important contribution to the provision of social housing, but they are not the answer on their own. They are not sufficient to provide for all the needs of all the people who require affordable housing. I shall try to outline in a few minutes some of the steps that the Government and, indeed, local authorities must take to overcome that problem.
The hon. Gentleman's reference to exception sites has provoked me to refer in passing to the Conservative party's extremely unhelpful intervention in the past few months. Its announcement that it would extend the right to buy to housing association properties had an 39WH immediate and direct impact on the provision of exception sites. That is curious, and it is difficult to divine what caused that response. It seems to have been predicated on the conception—perhaps the misconception—among many landowners that there would be a Conservative Government in the not-toodistant future who could actually implement that policy. The hon. Gentleman shows by his facial expressions that he finds that as bewildering as I do. Nevertheless, it meant that, almost overnight, exception sites were being withdrawn from the market, which caused dismay among social housing providers, including the rural housing trust, with which many hon. Members will be familiar.
I want to refer to one recent Government initiative, the basis for which I accept and applaud. We need to ensure maximum use of Brownfield sites in order to protect greenfield sites from the pressure of private development. However, PPG3 and the sequential test therein continues to force young people out of their villages and into local market towns. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) may wish to comment on that because it is a feature of the local housing plan in Bridgnorth, a district that both our constituencies share. If local people want to remain in the village where they were born and raised, which is especially likely to be the case if there are jobs there for them, they will also want housing to be developed there, not in the local market town simply because it happens to be near a motorway or major road or on a railway line, if young people are forced away from their communities against their will, we shall continue to break family connections and community links, contribute to the downward spiral of community life in rural neighbourhoods and reduce the scope of the local labour force.
We need less top-down and more bottom-up planning. I am pleased that the Government are committed to the future of parish councils. The vital villages programme, funded by the Countryside Agency, has given parish councils not only a key role in determining the future of their communities but the wherewithal, the programmes and funding to fulfil that responsibility. Parish councils really can show local leadership, both in identifying the need to which I referred earlier and in building the essential consensus on which a successful planning system must be based. We are talking about sensitive environments and landscapes, but we must also consider the needs of people who live in those landscapes and try to build agreement about what a community needs to sustain itself.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The hon. Gentleman talks about a bottom-up approach and building consensus in local areas but, unfortunately, his Government are doing precisely the opposite. Creating regional housing and planning bodies simply takes power away from local communities and will make the consensus and bottom-up approach that he advocates much more difficult.
§ Peter Bradley
I do not agree with that. There is a great deal of sense in strategic planning, both nationally, through planning guidance, and in the regions, but it makes it all the more important that there should be 40WH grass-roots regeneration of our democratic system and grass-roots identification of what is needed to give substance to those strategic plans and ensure that they meet local needs. I see no conflict at all between those arrangements. It is a shame that the Conservative party does not spend more time encouraging parish councils to fulfil their potential, rather than spreading scare stories about the Government's intentions to abolish them and place what the Conservatives claim are such onerous new burdens on their members that 75 out of a total of 70,000 have thrown up their hands and resigned. The Conservative party needs to talk more sense about parish councils and give them more encouragement to fulfil their huge potential.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I broadly agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am just a little puzzled by one aspect of what he says. Parish councils have no formal role to play in the planning process. Is he advocating that parish councils have a formal planning role under regional government, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned, his Government are introducing?
§ Peter Bradley
I am coming to my wish list, or shopping list, for the Minister, and all will be revealed shortly. Indeed, parish councils have an important role to play, along with their local district or borough council, in undertaking housing needs surveys. There should be an obligation on every local authority to undertake such surveys and to incorporate parish plans in the local planning framework. Recently, in Portcullis House, the clerk of Little Wenlock parish council, which is in my constituency, unveiled a parish plan that he and the parish council, working with the community, had developed—an ambitious but very practical plan. His task now is to convince Telford and Wrekin council to treat it with the seriousness that it deserves.
§ Peter Bradley
I hope that it will not be tough. I hope that, in future, there will be a genuine compact and that parish councils will live up to the expectations of their communities, rather than letting them down, which has been a feature of some parish councils. The very best have been doing a much more important job during the past five years than they were previously allowed to do.
Therefore, parish plans should be developed and incorporated into local plans. Sites for housing should be allocated beyond the exception sites, and the village envelopes that have constrained the development of affordable housing in recent years should be loosened.
Central Government, as well as local government, need to do more. We have depended far too much in recent times on crumbs from the developers' table, such as the odd affordable home here or there that is contingent on planning consents for private housing developments. The presumption should be reversed. Registered social landlords should be given the opportunity to fund at least part of their social housing provision by building perhaps one or two private houses for sale on the open market.
41WH A threshold should be introduced for communities with a population of fewer than 3,000, and it should be reduced for communities with a population of more than 3,000. There should be a moratorium on the right to buy in communities of less than 6,000. If I caught correctly the drift of the comments of the hon. Member for St. Ives on tenure, discretion should be given for specified tenure in the granting of planning consents in areas that are experiencing housing pressure.
Council tax should be hypothecated for the provision of affordable housing. I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it should be limited only to the district in which it is raised. We must take a balanced view of need and understand that the opportunity to sell housing to people who seek second or holiday homes is rather limited in some areas, but that does not mean that their housing need is lesser.
The sequential test that I alluded to earlier should be suspended in designated areas, in so far as it prevents people from finding housing in their own community and forces them away to the towns. A rural key workers strategy should be adopted, similar to the key workers strategy that has been developed for the south and south-east.
There is a need for boldness, courage and commitment. When a community says that it wants housing on greenfield sites or even in the green belt, there is a case for providing it. People live in such landscapes, and we should encourage them to remain in them. We must listen more attentively to what rural communities tell us. They are far more permissive than they have been represented as being in the past.
We can reverse the decline. We have levers to pull, if we choose to pull them. However, those decisions need to be taken now because it is almost too late for the current generation. We owe a duty to the next generation to ensure that they can bring up their own children and find a prosperous future in the villages in which they themselves were raised.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
This is a welcome debate and, in my Front-Bench role, I welcome the fact that it has been raised from a Back-Bench, constituency point of view. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for securing the debate. He made a thoughtful speech, which was followed by a similarly thoughtful speech by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who proposed some ideas with which I had a great deal of sympathy. Perhaps there could be some unity of thought in dealing with the problems of rural housing.
I realise that the Minister has a great deal of sympathy with the problems. I know from discussion that he understands many of them. Pressures in London and the south-east seem to be drawing the Government's attention away from rural areas—perhaps one could argue rightly so—at a time when the problem is getting worse. The Government and the Minister need to resist the temptation to be drawn entirely to London and the south-east, to see where the other problems are.
The Government's figures show that the number of rural households in England deemed to be unintentionally homeless and in priority need has increased by 13 per cent. in the last five years from just 42WH over 15,000 to 17,000. We have heard figures from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, the hon. Member for The Wrekin and, through interventions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). They identified some of the statistics that show the real scale of the problem in rural areas.
Problems in rural areas have a variety of causes that are not the same as those that fuel the affordable housing shortage in London and the south-east. Ludlow, North Cornwall and St. Ives are all constituencies that suffer from people buying second homes—in the case of Cornwall—or retiring into the area from London and the south-east. People sell a three-bedroom semi-detached house on the outskirts of London for a third of a million, and wander up to Shropshire and buy a country cottage for£250,000. However, in Cornwall or Shropshire,£15,000 is a good salary.
How can one afford a family home that costs£250,000? I see the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), and I am sure that the problem is the same in his constituency. People who are working and living locally cannot afford to purchase homes in their area. If they want to buy a home, they are driven away from the area in which they live. That economy is fuelled not by salaries, or people commuting, but by people retiring into the area, particularly from London and the south-east, and using the capital advantage that comes from having worked and lived there to force up the house prices elsewhere.
In some ways the problem is hidden. We have heard about the problems of the number of people in rural areas that cannot afford to live there. However, that is only part of the problem. Many young people in those rural areas move away.
If one looks at the demographics of my constituency—I am sure that the problem is the same in St. Ives—one finds that there are next to no people between the ages of 18 and 35 living there. They cannot afford to live in their communities. People move back into the housing market in their area when they are in their 30s or 40s after they have established careers and built up some capital in other parts of the country. There is a 20-year gap that has a huge knock-on effect, as we have heard from the hon. Member for The Wrekin, on primary schools. There is a declining number of children of primary school age, and when the school is lost, the community suffers. The shop goes, the pub goes, and there is a loss of community purely as a result of house prices.
On several occasions, not least in the rural White Paper of 2000, the Government have identified the problem. We cannot fault them in that regard. They share our concern. However, the record shows one step forward and four steps back. We welcome the one step forward—the changes to the second-home discount. We are delighted that the Government have finally done something. However, they would do well to take note of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives about building social housing.
That was the step forward. Let us consider some of the problems that have taken us backwards. The first is the right to buy. That has had a disproportionately devastating effect on rural areas. To be kind to the Conservative Government who introduced it, they 43WH sought to break up the large-scale social housing estates so that they contained a mixed tenure. One reason for the introduction of the right to buy was to enable people to own their homes. However, the reality is that home owners cherry-picked. Those who lived in desirable country council houses bought them; those living on large estates did not. Therefore, the problems in the large estates in metropolitan and northern cities have not gone away, but the social housing stock in rural areas has been decimated, with the result that we no longer have the social housing stock that we need.
There are two districts in my constituency. One, South Shropshire, did large-scale voluntary transfer; the other, Bridgnorth, did not. Both are losing 100 homes a year. Their housing stocks are just over 2,000 apiece. Work it out; we shall not have any homes in 20 years unless we keep building them. There was a solution, particularly in South Shropshire—local authority social housing grant. The electors there, in survey after survey, identified social housing as the No. 1 priority, and the district council recycled every capital receipt that it had through the local authority social housing grant. Magnificently, over five or six years, it has managed to increase by 5 per cent. its number of affordable homes—they are available through housing associations rather than through the council. The council managed to increase its stock, but only by allowing it to be taken from it.
The Government's White Paper hailed the Ludlow foyer project in South Shropshire as an excellent example of rural regeneration and affordable housing for young people. It has had£300,000 of local authority social housing grant. I suspect that if it had had to go through the normal Housing Corpo ration route it might have arrived several years late, if at all. Therefore the local authority social housing grant has enabled at least one rural district to deal with its problem.
With the announcement that local authorities had to make known details of their schemes by the end of February, the Government have shown that they realise that they must do something. They backed away to an extent, but the abolition of the scheme is a mistake. The fact that they gave only three extra months and£275 million instead of£500 million means that if all the affected authorities rush to register their schemes, and they exceed£275 million, someone—the Government—will have to prioritise between areas. I am afraid that in some parts of the country where social housing would have been built in the next 12 months there will be none. Although I welcome the slight backtracking of the Government, and I appreciate that they might not have realised the full extent of the problem when they first made the move, they should reconsider the matter and go further still.
The Government allocated£250 million to their starter home initiative, announced in March 2002, of which£8.7 million was allocated to rural areas. After some quick maths, I reckon that about 3 per cent. of the total was allocated to rural areas. Once again that is an indication that the Government are tackling what they perhaps see as a more urgent problem, while there is, frankly, a problem in the rural areas as well.
44WH Finally, there is at times an artificiality about the housing numbers. The Minister has considerable sympathy on that point. I realise that the changes that the Government are making mean that in a couple of years the housing numbers will not be a problem. However, I should like to highlight the case of South Shropshire, which had a disagreement with Shropshire county council over the number of houses. South Shropshire wanted more because of the social housing need, but the county council wanted to allocate them elsewhere. An agreement was reached, but then the Government office for the west midlands stepped in, took 500 homes away from South Shropshire's allocation and gave them to Telford and Wrekin to build the millennium village—an excellent idea—at Ketley. South Shropshire has 569 housing permissions left by 2011, yet its survey identifies a need for 1,400 affordable homes. I realise that the Government will tackle that and the Minister has considerable sympathy on the matter, but those are some of the problems that impinge on rural areas.
It is not all about problems. What are the solutions? We need to see a change to the right to buy. That change should be not just for areas in London and the southeast, but made available to any council that wishes to make those changes, because there are pockets around the country where the right to buy has devastated the social housing stock. The problem is not confined to London and the south-east. Councils should be able to change the discount, and in some circumstances any discount under the right to buy should be ended. I would much prefer encouragement of the right to invest. Ironically, the Conservatives introduced the right to invest at the same time as the right to buy, back in the 1980s, but they then abolished it because no one was using it because everyone was taking advantage of the right to buy. In my mind, the right to invest is the shared equity route, and very much the way forward in ensuring that houses remain in the stock but also that people pay back and build up their capital receipts.
I should like to share with hon. Members news of a successful scheme in South Shropshire, which I have mentioned to the Minister. The golden shares scheme seeks to create a middle tier of housing. It uses section 106 agreements about local need housing, often when a farmer builds in an adjoining field for his family. Under those provisions, individuals are tied, and must sell to other local people at an agreed maximum growth rate in house prices. The result is that the housing remains affordable to local people but that that person still owns 99 per cent. of their home. I would recommend that laudable scheme to hon. Members around the country as a practical, middle way—for want of another term—forward between the social housing market and the open housing market.
I would urge the Government to encourage councils to increase targets for the percentage of affordable homes. In South Shropshire we have now achieved the position where there is 50 per cent. affordable housing on all new sites over two homes. That is probably the most draconian—or radical, depending on how one looks at it—set-up in the country, and a pragmatic approach to dealing with a problem in rural communities.
However, there is another matter that is perhaps a little difficult for the Government to deal with and is not an easy problem: the effect of PPG7, which defines 45WH sustainable communities. The hon. Member for The Wrekin touched on that matter in a way. That guidance says that housing can only be built in settlements of a certain size and with certain facilities. However, there are villages just below that size that have village shops, pubs, a church, a village hall and a community. In some of those cases, some affordable housing is necessary to ensure the future viability of that village. The problem with PPG7 is that it will cause communities below a certain size to stagnate. This is a difficult issue. We do not want random growth; we do not want to concrete over the green belt as people often say. We need a sliding scale that allows communities that are a little below the scale to have the housing that will ensure that they remain viable for the long term.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives introduced the debate, as it is an important matter for many in rural areas. Lack of affordable housing in rural areas blights lives. It is a shame that events in the other Chamber have taken many hon. Members away, but I hope that the Minister might, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives when talking about another Minister, throw away his notes for once and pick up the baton. I hope that he will act on a matter that gives him concern by fighting for an increase in affordable social housing in rural areas.
§ 3.5 pm
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for securing the debate. Lack of affordable social housing concerns all of us who represent rural areas and, sadly, it is a problem that is getting worse. Lack of affordable housing is a problem everywhere but it is particularly bad in rural areas. Homelessness in rural areas has soared by 13 per cent. since the Government came to power. Rural homelessness has risen more than three times faster than that in urban areas. At present, more than 17,000 rural households are unintentionally homeless and in priority need. Only 20 per cent. of the affordable social housing built between 1997 and 2001 was built in rural areas. In that time, the Housing Corporation's budget was reduced by more than £300 million.
In March, the Government announced that they had allocated another £250 million for starter home initiatives to help key workers to buy homes over the next three years. The trouble was that only 360 key workers were in rural areas. Rural property prices are 15 per cent. above national averages, so locals cannot afford them. That is the root of the problem. Many people dream of a rural idyll where it is easy and cheap to live, and that is why they move to rural areas. Once there, however, they find that the idyll is not what they expected.
In an excellent article in The Guardian in October 2002, Alexander Garrett makes the point very well about higher costs in rural areas. He makes the point that the high cost of rural transport is a long-running sore. He also says that fuel costs and council tax are higher. One or two things are cheaper in rural areas, such as parking, insurance and domestic help. However, he concludes his article, which I commend to anyone who has not read it, by saying: 46WHOverall, though, the cost of living means many areas of the countryside are becoming increasingly exclusive, says Professor Shucksmith. 'The real issue is that there are some people in rural areas facing a high cost of living and with poor access to services and markets, and who are on low incomes,' he explains. 'There are others who have professional salaries and who can afford to pay the prices. They are also more likely to be oriented to the nearby urban areas, and so have more choice about the price they pay. So it's not just about town versus country: there is inequality within the rural community.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) made the problem very clear, and his analysis was exactly right. The question is: what is to be done about it? In my own area, Cotswold district council did a large-scale voluntary transfer four years ago. It sold 500 houses, and with the interest on the money and with the local authority social housing grant it has managed to build in the past four years 480 additional houses. The problem is that councils will no longer be able to do that because of the changes that the Government are making. The disgraceful withdrawal of the local authority social housing grant at very short notice will hit debt-free councils very hard indeed. It will make it much more difficult for them to build affordable social housing. The pooling of capital receipts will make it even harder for them to build.
It is wrong, just because those councils are debt free, that they should be punished in that way. After all, the people who live in those areas have as much right to affordable social housing as those living in other areas. In fact, it is largely those debt-free councils in the southwest and south-east of England that have the biggest problem in building affordable housing. The difficulty is caused by the very word affordable. In those areas, land prices are so high that the ratio between the permissible rent and the cost of building such houses makes it difficult for registered social landlords to build new affordable houses.
What is to be done? Hon. Members have come up with a number of solutions. One area that needs to be looked at closely is the planning system. It is highly regrettable that the Government have ripped up the planning system and are replacing it with a new system. Whether it will work does not matter; it will take a number of years to bed in, and in the interim it is bound to be slower and less responsive. We regret, from the Conservative point of view, that it will be based on the regions. That is not the correct way to run a planning system. We think that local councils and local people should have more say.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) is entirely right; where they are able and willing to do so, parish councils—on their own or in clusters—should have a greater role in the planning system. That must be entirely right, because local people know what is needed, particularly what is needed for local people rather than for incomers. The Government are going in the wrong direction by moving planning and housing to the regions.
I urge the Government in a non-partisan way, but I hope that the regions will use a light touch in planning and housing matters and that those powers will be used only in extreme circumstances. By and large, local authorities should be left to make their own housing plans, which they are required to do under the Local Government Bill, and their local development frameworks, which they are required to do under the 47WH Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, and they should be able to do so with little interference from the region.
§ Peter Bradley
I am glad to discover that we agree at least about the role of parish councils. However, would the hon. Gentleman accept it if a parish council said on behalf of the local community that it needed to develop affordable housing in the green belt?
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The hon. Gentleman might be slightly confused by the difference between greenbelt and greenfield land. The green belt itself is a difficult issue. On the whole, green belts should be preserved, although a case could be made for replenishing the green belt with other areas, and for building on the green belt itself provided that areas are added in compensation. There is a clear need for more affordable housing—for more housing, full stop. That will involve some building on green fields, although the Government could do far more to encourage the use of brownfield land.
The Government's target is for 60 per cent. of new housing to be built on brownfield land. They will find it difficult to achieve that target when the rate of housing building accelerates—as it must. We are now building the fewest houses since 1924. That is unsustainable. It is also unfair, particularly to those at the bottom of the pile who need affordable housing. That is why the number of homeless people is at its highest level, and why we have the highest number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The Government have clearly got us into an unsustainable position.
We need to build more houses, but they need to be built on brownfield land. I have met many councillors, particularly in the south-east, who have told me that they do not have any land, but when I start examining their plans, I find that they have allocated 5,000 homes on brownfield land. Even in the Cotswolds, which is one of the most difficult areas to find building land, because 80 per cent. of the land is designated in one way or another, they have found brownfield land such as old airfields and other such places, where they could build houses—and they should be doing more of it.
Hon. Members have cited the right to buy as part of the problem of the shortage of affordable housing. Let me put right one mistake that hon. Members have made today. When a house is sold off, it does not disappear from the housing stock. If one is at the bottom of the pile, one needs availability. The average tenure of an affordable house is between 10 and 20 years. That is a fact. In a small village where there are, for example, half a dozen affordable houses, the chance of one coming up often is very small.
The problem with the right to buy, which we introduced, was that all the proceeds were first applied to paying off debt, although there was a good reason for that. Under the new extension of right to buy that we have proposed, all the proceeds will be ploughed back into building further affordable houses. By extending the right to buy to registered social landlords, we could sell up to 30,000 houses and build an additional 15,000 affordable houses. Given that the Government are currently building only 21,000 additional affordable 48WH houses in any one year—down from 35,000 when we left office—we would, at a stroke, increase the number of affordable houses that could be built in this country by about 70 per cent., at no cost to the taxpayer.
§ Matthew Green
The problem is that once houses are bought under right to buy, their prices rocket up to normal house prices. When I looked at the housing market recently, I found that the cheapest former council house in Much Wenlock was£160,000. Given that the average salary in Shropshire is £15,000,that has been taken right out of the affordable market. Because of the discount, even under the hon. Gentleman's scheme, there would be less money available to build homes.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
That is just a function of the market. If the Liberal party thinks that it can buck the market, it has another thing coming.
I have nearly finished, because I want the Minister to have plenty of time to reply to this important debate. The Government have, at my urging—I raised the subject three years ago, long before almost anyone else in the House—amended the council tax in the Local Government Bill currently in progress so that local authorities have the discretion to charge council tax on second houses at up to 90 per cent. My party welcomes that, but it raises only £60 million. The Government have, quite rightly, said that local authorities can keep that money, but they will be able to use it to subsidise services in general. We would have preferred it to be ring-fenced for additional affordable housing.
The real problem is that although the Government have given local authorities the power to raise council tax on empty homes, which could raise a maximum of£160 million, they will take all the money away. There is therefore no incentive whatever for councils to charge council tax on empty homes. Obviously, with 753,000 empty homes in this country, that is a real problem. We must address it, and not in some of the draconian ways that the Government and the Liberal party propose, but by incentives. There is an awful lot that we can do to encourage some of that empty housing to be brought back into use, as it should be. It is a waste of national resources.
There is clearly a problem in rural areas, which must be addressed. It is part of the Government's policy of not giving fair treatment to people in rural areas, compared with people in some of the urban areas that they control. We must have a better distribution of resources. We need to build more affordable housing in rural areas. We must look at the planning system. We must see whether we can bring brownfield land and empty and second homes into use. There is much that can be done; I urge the Government to do it.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)
I apologise to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for having so little time to respond to what has been, in the main—I exempt the last contribution—a serious and properly focused debate. I have to say, with the best will in the world and in the nicest possible terms, that what we have just heard was clumsy, cliché-ridden 49WH drivel, as usual. There is no justification for the real, substantial damage that the extension of the right to buy would do—in rural areas in particular, as alluded to. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) implicitly suggests that registered social landlords can magically sell a house, collect the proceeds and persuade the banks that the phantom house still exists and should still be on the books as a suitably valued asset. His policy is complete and utter nonsense. Simply because the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) had to pull a rabbit out of the bag at the last party conference, it is not appropriate substantively to fool people that his policy will magically secure an addition to the stock of affordable housing in rural areas, for which there is a real need.
Equally, it is not terribly helpful to run around like the soothsayer in "Up Pompeii!"—I know that that shows my age—shouting that we are all doomed because any number of councils up and down the land affected, albeit temporarily, by the abolition of the local authority social housing grant will suddenly impose supplementary rates. There is no such thing as supplementary council tax or the ability to secure supplementary council tax in this land. Unless the hon. Member for Cotswold is suggesting that affected councils should act illegally, he is talking complete and utter nonsense. With the greatest regard, under British law councils do not have the ability to lay a supplementary council tax. It is not possible and to suggest otherwise is nonsense.
§ Mr. McNulty
With the greatest will in the world, I have nine minutes in which to address the important comments made by the hon. Member for St. Ives and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). However, I could not let that matter go.
It is not appropriate to say that councils only had seven weeks' notice for the abolition of local authority social housing grant. They were consulted last autumn on the impending abolition of LASHG in April 2004. If people were making plans in perpetuity for April 2004, it was an error.[Interruption.] I shall come to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) presently. The transitional arrangements are generous: it is misconstruing the matter to suggest that things are somehow worse in the transitional period than they were before it.
I have not yet come to my notes, but I must tell the hon. Member for St. Ives that we were not quaking in our boots last Wednesday morning when we saw the title of today's debate. The communities plan mentioned a £175 million initial transitional payment, albeit for debt-free authorities. Although there was a coincidence between the publication of the debate's title and the issue of the statement, sadly statements do not drop from the sky. It was well into Tuesday, the day before I had any hint of the debate's title, when the appropriate written statement was signed off. None the less, when one puts together the£275 million transitional relief for debt-free authorities with the relief offered on the interest that will accrue for non-debt-free authorities, which is what they will be seeking to do over the next year with LASHG, cumulatively£550 million of 50WH programmes will be sustained over the next year rather than the anticipated£500 million. If anything, the settlement errs on the side of generosity.
§ Mr. McNulty
With the best will in the world, the hon. Gentleman has already shown his complete lack of understanding of LASHG. Please do not compound the matter by repeating the point about sophistry, which LASHG is not. For those authorities with debt, LASHG was about sustaining and funding the interest accrued on investment, not spending money. If the hon.Gentleman thinks otherwise, he is simply showing his lack of both information and comprehensive understanding, which is the polite way to put it.
The hon. Gentleman showed his misunderstanding in spades when he discussed the right to buy. Government and Opposition Members have accepted that right to buy is important because it has had a measured and substantial effect on rural housing, which is something that the Conservative Government accepted in their initial designations and exemptions. It troubles me that any number of the authorities that are covered by the designation and the widening of the ability to alter the criteria have not yet used that ability. Many of the authorities that the hon. Gentleman quoted are covered in some way by the restrictions. In Caradon and North Cornwall there is a requirement on the buyer, if he or she wishes to resell within 10 years, to offer the property back to the authority, returning it to the affordable housing stock. In Carrick, Kerrier and Penwith, people are allowed to sell only to somebody who has lived or worked locally for at least three years. We do not yet know about Restormel. If those restrictions are not working, the relevant districts need to reconsider the matter.
When we announced the 42 areas in which we were restricting the discounts on right to buy, at the same time—receiving far less press coverage—we said that we would extend the ability of all the areas designated as rural to consider whether any of the criteria should be further restricted. We have heard only from the Isles of Scilly and we are talking to people there about the home ownership taskforce. We are considering not merely reforming right to buy. As the hon. Member for St. Ives says, one way in which we can tackle housing in rural areas is to find new models of low-cost home ownership—equity transfer, shared ownership or any new way of giving people scope to get on the property ladder without taking the social unit with them and denuding progressively the limited social housing stock. I am happy to discuss further why the restrictions are not working in relation to particular authorities, or where the Isles of Scilly go from here in terms of the low-cost home ownership taskforce. I have come to know in detail some of the authorities in Cornwall, not least because, in some cases, fairly eccentric—
§ Mr. McNulty
Kerrier is the one that I am referring to in terms of its eccentric interpretation of some national 51WH Government policies and policy planning guidance. I have written to that authority on a number of occasions, not least about PPG7. Much existing policy is in the hands of local planning authorities.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin about proper reform of the planning system. The hon. Member for St. Ives will know that we are looking seriously at 6/98 and I look forward to hearing his points about greater flexibility in the review of affordable housing and the notions of exception, especially in rural areas, when we review PPG3. The point about the new planning system enabling us to be more sensitive and more flexibly responsive to strange and complex things was well made.
If we are talking about sophistry, the hon. Member for Cotswold needs to understand that until now the Housing Corporation has imposed downwards any notion of what is going on in the regions and the counties. Moving that down to regional level will mean greater sensitivity and flexibility within each locality where planning is concerned. The relationship between the regional spatial strategy and the local development framework will also be more sensitive. I have already spoken specifically to the hon. Member for Ludlow about the numbers in South Shropshire and I shall continue that investigation.
I apologise; I have limited time. I can tell the hon. Member for St. Ives that we take the matter very seriously. Other hon. Members have shown that they do too, except, sadly, the hon. Member for Cotswold, who clearly knows nothing about the matter, and given his contribution, could not care less about it. That is a matter of some regret, given that in assorted rural forums, there is a goodly deal of cross-party consensus on the matters, the seriousness of which belies the yah-boo tactics of the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hesitate to interrupt a Minister in full flow—a torrent, I would have said—but I have done, and I am grateful to him for sitting down.