On 26th January 2016, the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, took part in the Second Reading debate of the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill. The Bishop raised concerns about the impact of the bill on rural affordable housing, right to buy, implications for local councils, and the effect of the Bill on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, on their excellent maiden speeches.
I shall limit my comments to three areas. My first concern stems from the right-to-buy deal that has been agreed between the Government and the NHF, and the provisions within the Bill which will accommodate starter homes within affordable housing requirements. My concern is that housing which would once have been provided as affordable rented housing—affordable in perpetuity—will now be replaced by starter homes and homes to buy, with the only condition on their resale being that they be held off the market for a period of five years.
The simple fact of the matter is that, as things stand, houses in rural areas sold under the right to buy will not be replaced in the same area—or indeed, in all likelihood, in any rural area. In so far as they are sold, they will be lost for those who need access to affordable rented accommodation and will be replaced by affordable housing in urban areas, where the costs of development are usually cheaper and where more sites are available. Similarly, affordable rented housing built under Section 106 agreements is likely to be lost from the beginning and replaced by starter homes that benefit only those who are in a position to take advantage of the 20% discount.
What rural areas need most is not large numbers of starter homes but affordable homes to rent and homes for shared ownership—homes that are accessible to the many households on low to middle incomes who will never be able to own their own home but who form the very lifeblood of many rural communities.
I might raise a further point of concern about the status of rural exception sites, which provide around 20% of rural affordable housing. Will the Minister clarify whether tenants will be able to exercise right to buy there, or will guarantees and covenants on the land, given by philanthropic landowners, hold firm? Will she also clarify whether a proportion of starter homes will be required on rural exception sites, or will regulations exclude those sites from the provisions of the Bill?
The second issue that I want to raise is the question of fairness. Is it right to force local authorities to sell off vacant council houses to pay for the right-to-buy deal? I appreciate that this proposal takes the form of a levy on the value of vacant properties so that there is no forced sale, but the effect will be the same. Councils will be forced to sell off assets, which they may have held on to prudently, to fund a national right-to-buy programme from which they have no guarantee of benefiting. This means rural council homes being sold off to fund urban right to buy, and it means Greater London council homes being sold off to fund right to buy in areas of lesser need.
In the area in which I live—St Albans—it has been estimated that the council will have to sell off 60% of its council homes, pushing the low paid out of the centre of town to the fringes, with no guarantee of recompense to the local authority. This is wholly inappropriate and goes against the principle of localism that this Government have tried to enshrine. At the very least, rural council homes need to be excluded from the calculation of this levy. But I would also like to see measures intended to ensure that St Albans keeps hold of the majority of its assets for the sake of those who will not otherwise be able to afford to live there.
Finally, I want to highlight concerns about the impact of the Bill on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Clause 115 removes the requirement for local councils to consider the needs of the area’s Traveller community specifically, and instead to make provision through caravan sites and inland waterways. It is very likely that this will result in fewer sites becoming available for Gypsies and Travellers, as their specific needs will be buried within the wider housing needs of the community. Such a change is likely only to increase the number of illegal Traveller sites, so inflaming community relations. The failure to provide an impact assessment of this measure is again frustrating, but I hope that the Government will give this and the other matters that I have raised due consideration in Committee.