Housing and Planning Bill: Bishop of St Albans tables amendment on rural right to buy

On the 13th April 2016 the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, tabled an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill that would prevent Right to Buy from occuring in rural areas unless rural replacements were guaranteed. Baroness Evans of Park responded on behalf of the government. The amendment was later withdrawn.

Bishop St Albans June 2015

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 52, which is in my name and has the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for his comments. I also want to note my support for Amendment 51, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, which would serve to better protect areas of high value, such as St Albans city and district in my own diocese, from a potential loss of social housing to other parts of the country.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that any home sold by housing associations under right to buy in rural areas is replaced in the same or an adjoining parish. This would shift the terms of the current right-to-buy deal from one in which housing associations have discretion over the sale of assets under right to buy in rural areas, to one in which they are unable to take advantage of right-to-buy funding in rural areas unless they guarantee replacement housing in the same or an adjoining rural area. Such an amendment is widely supported by coalitions of rural landowners such as the CLA, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and rural housing associations such as Hastoe Housing Association.

I recognise that many Peers have a legitimate concern about preserving the status of housing associations as independent providers of social housing, and that this would lead them to support increased individual choice for housing associations wherever possible. However, I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who pointed out in Committee that,

“the circumstances of rural communities and villages are exceptional”.—[Official Report, 8/3/16; col. 1209.]

As has been repeatedly stated in this House, just one in 10 homes in rural areas is classed as affordable housing, compared with one in five in urban areas, despite the fact that in 90% of rural authorities, the average home costs eight times the average salary. That leaves a large proportion of rural communities struggling to make ends meet in the private rental market, desperately waiting for affordable rents to become available, or forced to leave their communities altogether. The Government’s facilitating the sale of what little affordable housing exists in rural communities seems to me to be a failure of policy, particularly given the immense difficulties associated with securing new or replacement rural affordable housing. In many rural communities it is virtually impossible to build more social housing.

Along with other noble Lords, I have raised this issue several times in the House already, and every time it has been pointed out that under the terms of the voluntary agreement, housing associations are exempt from the requirement to sell in rural areas. I am well aware of that. My concern is what happens when housing associations do choose to sell rural properties, given that there is currently no requirement for them to build replacements in the same area.

In Committee, several Peers indicated that we need simply to take it on trust that housing associations, because they are close to the actual situation on the ground, will not sell rural homes in areas where they cannot or will not be able to replace them. That seems highly questionable to me. Most housing associations, unless they have a specific rural focus in the very nature of what they have set out to do, have a duty to the vulnerable that transcends rural and urban boundaries. It would not be for me to criticise a housing association which, in selling off one rural affordable home—it will probably be an extremely valuable property, or certainly a more costly property—was able to provide affordable housing for two families in an urban area.

That sounds an eminently sensible thing to do for the overall good of everybody. However, for the individual housing association, it could make perfect financial and charitable sense to consolidate the housing stock in, say, quite a limited urban area—a town or a city—where the costs of development tend to be cheaper and where they can support more families. But for the rural communities in question, that would be devastating: not just for the individual families who are unable to live in the local village and perhaps where many generations of their family have lived in the past, but for the sustainability and the future of the wider community. Without people of all incomes living and working in the local area, no rural community can sustain flourishing schools, shops, pubs and churches. Rural communities need hope for a sustainable and secure future. This is particularly true when it comes to the development of rural exception sites, which are a crucial route to securing affordable housing for rural communities.

Speaking personally on my own area of interest, many dioceses in the Church of England, including my own, are committed to using glebe land to provide for rural exception sites where possible, but the extension of right to buy will make the provision of such sites much more difficult for us as a charitable body, given that charitable assets might be transferred to individual ownership, where they could be used for profit. I know that the CLA has spoken to many landowning members who have similar reservations about providing land for rural exceptions sites without strong guarantees that the resultant affordable housing will remain available to the local community in perpetuity. I welcome the concession the Government have already made on rural exception sites regarding starter homes, and can only hope that today might find the Minister in a similarly understanding mood—I smile at her hopefully.

The sale of vital and scarce affordable housing should not receive government subsidies in rural areas unless local replacement is guaranteed. This cannot be left to the discretion of housing associations, which will face immense pressure on their resources in the coming years. Securing the sustainability of rural communities is the duty of government, and I hope the Government will make the necessary amendments to the Bill.

Lord Young of Cookham: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly on these two amendments. I have some sympathy with Amendment 52. As a former Member for a rural constituency, I know how important housing association properties for rent are in small villages. They contribute to the balanced communities that we want to retain, so I understand the concerns here. However, the amendment is entirely unnecessary because under the voluntary agreement there is absolutely no obligation on rural housing associations to sell their properties. Indeed, they are closer to the problem than almost anyone else, so it is most unlikely that, given the nature of the voluntary agreement, they would want to sell these properties.

The voluntary agreement specifically refers to properties in rural areas as examples of circumstances where housing associations may exercise discretion over sales, so in a sense the amendment is redundant. Also, if a housing association actually wanted to sell a property in these areas, the amendment would not prevent it doing so. All the amendment would do is stop the Secretary of State giving the housing association a grant to replace the property. I shall go back to the first point I made: certainly, the housing associations that were active in my former constituency would not, given the nature of the voluntary agreement, dispose of a property for rent in a rural area because they are more aware than almost anyone else of how valuable these properties are.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Young, confused me. Will the Minister very briefly clarify them in her response? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned in particular the situation of a housing association such as Hastoe, which is well known as a rural housing association that did not sign up to the voluntary deal, is opposed to it and did not want to participate in it. Now what will happen? We may or may not get rural exception sites and so on, but even there my understanding is that the Government proposed that any tenant in such a position would port a discount to somewhere else where they would be able to buy. However, if an entirely rural housing association that is opposed to the voluntary deal and may wish to exercise its discretion not to engage in it has no property that is non-rural, can the Minister clarify what is then the situation? If a housing association is opposed to the voluntary deal, who will ensure that, if the Government deem that this is the right course forward, none the less sales will go ahead? Secondly, if it is entirely rural, with no property to which a tenant can port the discount, what happens then?

I would be glad of some reassurance because the description given by the noble Lord, Lord Young, of what goes on in rural areas bore no resemblance at all to my experience as a former chair of a housing association that was largely rural.

The Duke of Somerset: My Lords, I support Amendment [52] and declare my interest as a rural landowner and landlord. Many members of the rural housing group expressed concerns over some aspects of the Bill and, like myself, seek reassurances on the replacement policy for right to buy.

First, there does not appear to be any current requirement for houses that are sold to be replaced locally. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said but it is still vital for small communities to retain affordable housing for key rural workers, who are often in the low-paid sector. They need to service their jobs on the basis that they can pop in and out. If you look after animals, it is not a nine-to-five job but a matter of going back when the need is there. It is little help to provide these houses miles away on the edge of a larger settlement or market town. Yet it is quite possible that housing associations, if they sell, are tempted to build their replacements on the edge of such towns. As we heard, building in the countryside is more expensive and also more constrained. The same remarks apply to trying to replace in AONBs and national parks.

Secondly, I feel strongly that there should be a requirement to replace locally, on a one-to-one basis, especially in rural areas. No one wants a reduction in the total amount of affordable housing. We heard—with a different statistic but it comes to the same thing—that there is only 8% of such stock in small, local communities. This is what we have defined in Amendment 52. We cannot afford any further losses. History shows that similar policies failed in this respect and it is hard not to suspect that there will be the same result from this attempt as the Bill is currently drafted.

Thirdly, there is the question of whether replacement should be of the same tenure. Although this was largely resolved in our debate on Tuesday, when the Government accepted the exclusion of starter homes from small rural sites, other types of tenure can be involved. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on this point.

Finally, and crucially, we must consider the likely future state of rural social housing without this amendment. It appears to me that there will be a threat to the social and economic cohesion of the countryside. This amendment would help to prevent the disappearance of any assisted housing from such communities. Therefore, I strongly support it.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I keenly support Amendment 52, in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and emphasise some of the points he made about replacing properties within the same parish or within one parish. Some housing associations in the south-west cover the whole of Cornwall. The distance from Sennen to Bude is some 83 miles. That is the sort of distance covered by housing associations in Cornwall. Some cover Cornwall and Devon. Indeed, the distance between Land’s End and the Dorset border just the other side of Honiton is some 150 miles and involves more than four hours’ travel time. There are great differences even between local communities in rural areas. Each has specific characteristics and great local pride. This amendment is incredibly important to maintain the fabric of rural communities. The way that it is drafted provides an important assurance that housing associations would be able to replace properties on a like-for-like basis in terms of not just tenure in other areas but the ability of people who live in these communities to continue their work, education and hobbies in the same area.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville: My Lords, I speak to Amendment 52, in the names of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon. In so doing, I declare my interest as the chair of the National Community Land Trust Network.

I spoke on this subject at length in Committee and have no need to rehearse the arguments again, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has once more laid out the case very clearly and the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and my noble friend Lord Teverson have added to those arguments.

We have heard that the Minister and the Secretary of State will bring forward amendments at Third Reading which will satisfy those of us in this House who are very concerned at the Bill’s impact on rural settlements. Like others in this House, I wait to be convinced at Third Reading but for now am content to support the arguments already made.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I fully understand the desire of the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, and others to ensure that affordable housing is not lost to an area, and the concerns raised by the right reverend Prelate and others relating to rural issues.

Extending right-to-buy discounts to housing association tenants was a manifesto commitment taken forward through a voluntary agreement with the sector. This is about opportunity—social tenants having equal access to the opportunities for home ownership. I am sure that noble Lords agree with that. The other place was supportive of the agreement. The National Housing Federation and the housing association sector came to government with this offer. It is entirely voluntary and represents 96% of stock.

Under the terms of the agreement, housing associations will deliver an additional home through new supply nationally for every home sold under the voluntary right to buy. This will increase overall supply and housing associations will have discretion not to sell particular properties, including where those properties would be difficult to replace. As a number of noble Lords said in Committee, to legislate would go against the voluntary nature of the agreement and introducing controls would present a classification risk.

Amendment 52 relates specifically to rural areas and would require at least one replacement property in the same or an adjoining parish as the property sold. I completely agree that we should support strong and sustainable rural communities. As my noble friend Lord Young rightly said, the voluntary agreement, as well as giving housing associations the flexibility to build replacement properties where they are needed, already gives them discretion over sales of properties in rural locations. My noble friend Lady Williams will shortly talk in more detail about rural needs. It is clear from our engagement with the sector that associations are intending to exercise their discretion not to sell properties in rural areas where they would be difficult to replace. These are organisations that have well established and supportive relationships with the local communities that they serve and, as the noble Lord said, often have charitable status that ensures that they will deliver housing that the community needs. However, they also have to operate within the confines of what is practicable—for instance, in terms of land assembly and planning permission. They need the freedom to find the best opportunity available for delivering for local housing needs.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked what happens when a housing association has not signed up to the agreement and all its properties are in a rural area. As I have said, the deal is voluntary; housing associations, whether signed up to the agreement or not, do not have to sell any home, whether rural or not, where this is not in the interests of the area. She also asked about exercising discretion and the portable discount. Where a housing association exercises its discretion not to sell a home, the housing association will provide an alternative from its own stock or that of another housing association. Housing associations would work together to develop joint arrangements to enable this to happen.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I thank the noble Baroness for her comments and for allowing me to intervene. I am still puzzled. If a housing association is entirely rural, is not signed up to the deal and therefore does not wish or feel it is appropriate to lose or sell any of its stock, has no property to which it can attach a portable discount for one of its existing tenants to move to, and does not necessarily have a collaborative arrangement with another housing association—why would it?—what happens then?

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park: As I have said—and I am afraid I can go no further than what I have said—properties in rural areas, or indeed any other area, do not have to be sold where this is not in the best interests of the area. However, it is right that this should be a local decision.

Our manifesto commitment to extend right-to-buy discounts to housing association tenants is being taken forward through a voluntary agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said in Committee:

“It is in the nature of a voluntary agreement that it is very hard to build in statutory protections without taking yourself straight back to the issue of regulation. That is the problem: in a sense, we are trying to put statutory protections into a voluntary agreement. In the end, this is a voluntary agreement that is going to have to rely on a great deal of trust”.—[Official Report, 8/3/16; col. 1212.]

I think that noble Lords would trust housing associations to have the best interests of their tenants and local communities at heart and to build replacement properties where they are needed. To legislate would go against the voluntary nature of the agreement and restrict housing association decision-making on what is best for its organisation and local communities.

To introduce controls and restrictions in legislation would also present a classification risk. The noble Lord, Lord Best, raised this concern in Committee, when he said that,

“we are not out of the woods entirely on this aspect of the reclassification issue. The case still has to be made to the ONS that housing associations are genuinely independent of government control over the sale of their homes. The ONS must not be faced with a statutory right in all but name. Therefore the more that is left to the boards of housing associations to decide, and the less that is set out in statute, the better”.—[Official Report, 8/3/16; col. 1203.]

On the basis of the comments that I have made, I ask that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

(via Parliament.uk)