On 8th March 2016 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill in committee. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, supported an amendment to clause 62 of the Bill, on social housing and the right to buy. The amendment, which was withdrawn after debate, sought to prevent right to buy applying to housing association properties in rural areas unless in exceptional cases.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I support Amendment 56, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to which I have added my name. I, along with other noble Lords, have received a number of letters from people living in rural areas who are deeply concerned at what seem the inevitable consequences if this issue is not addressed.
The major force of this amendment, as the noble Baroness pointed out, would be to change the emphasis in the current right-to-buy arrangement from one in which housing associations can choose to exempt themselves from exercising right to buy in rural areas, as per the current agreement, to one in which housing associations would be unable to exercise right to buy in rural areas, unless in exceptional cases, as set out in proposed new subsection (1A) of the amendment.
The rationale for the amendment is pretty simple. Affordable housing should not be sold off in communities where it will not be replaced. Among the other options, adjacent areas, for example, may be quite some way away and include urban areas, so there are issues about definition. The broader definition of “rural” that is included in the amendment—as well as the inclusion of dwellings in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and rural exception sites—is designed to capture those additional settlements in which planning restrictions and natural features make the replacement of affordable housing sold under right to buy highly unlikely.
Everyone in the Committee will understand that affordable housing in rural areas is essential for the long-term sustainability of local communities, yet despite prices that are beyond the reach of many of those who live and work in rural areas, the level of affordable housing in rural areas is very low—only 8% compared to just 20% for urban areas. There is a variety of reasons for that, one being that it is so difficult to build in these areas. Planning regulations mean that rural villages struggle to produce any new developments, and what new developments there are tend to be much smaller, yielding little in the way of affordable housing through Section 106. Of course, proposed changes to the Bill to the requirements of developers to include affordable housing in any new developments will only make the situation far worse with regard to the provision of affordable homes for rent.
All of this means that any measure that puts existing rural affordable housing stock at risk needs to be treated very carefully—but the current right-to-buy arrangements make exactly the threat that I am concerned about. The chances of any rural affordable housing that is sold under right to buy being replaced by similar rural affordable housing is very small, as one sees when one visits rural areas and talks to people working on the ground. It is far more likely that those housing associations which choose to sell off expensive rural housing will choose to build replacement homes in urban areas, where the costs of development are likely to be far cheaper. That might be good for the housing associations which are facing a period of belt tightening over the coming years, but it will be devastating for rural communities.
Another reason for considering the amendment is for the sake of simplicity. Tenants require clarity about where they will be able to exercise the right to buy, as has already been pointed out, and a system based on housing association discretion is almost designed to create disappointment. I know that noble Lords on all sides have serious concerns about the feasibility of providing a portable discount as an alternative. It is also true that initial indicators suggest an enthusiasm for right to buy that will far exceed the Government’s ability to provide replacement funding—again leading to disappointment. Excluding areas that are most likely to be harmed by right to buy will ensure that resources are directed to the areas where they can do the most good. I hope the Government will reconsider and will listen very carefully to these arguments before pushing ahead with this.