Bishop of St Albans raises need for affordable housing in rural areas

On 2nd March 2017 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Hollick “That this House takes note of the Report from the Economic Affairs Committee, Building More Homes (1st Report, HL Paper 20).” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

stalbans190117-bThe Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, for tabling this Motion and giving us the opportunity to discuss the Building More Homes report. I am grateful also for the contributions from a number of members of the Economic Affairs Committee, which have been both helpful and enlightening.

My right reverend friend the Bishop of Newcastle has already set out some of the concerns from these Benches but I want to echo her comments, particularly the concerns she raised about the supply of social housing, and the key issue of whether we are building communities or just bricks and mortar. That is a fundamental issue for us and we need to remember some of the hard-learned lessons of the past. Like some others in your Lordships’ House, I am particularly keen to see the Government lift the restrictions on local authorities’ ability to borrow to invest in new social housing stock. I hope that the Minister will be pursuing this issue with the Government.

The Building More Homes report was prescient in a number of ways and, as has already been pointed out by a number of Members of your Lordships’ House, including the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, it is to the Government’s credit that many of the points raised by the Economic Affairs Committee have been taken on board in the recent White Paper. I am particularly glad to see that concerns about starter homes, which were expressed in the report and here in this House, have to some extent been calmed. The Government’s decision not to implement the requirement for starter homes at this time will help local authorities sustain a mix of affordable housing tenures, while the decision to extend restrictions on the onward sale of starter homes to 15 years will help protect starter home affordability.

I want to say a few things about rural housing. Housing supply is one of the greatest challenges facing rural communities, and here I must declare an interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Rural affordable housing supply is critically low, while much of the existing housing stock tends to be unaffordable to the vast majority of local people. One of the continuing problems is that many new properties built in the countryside are often unsuited to the needs of rural communities. There are simply too many large, expensive houses being built that do not reflect the needs of those local rural communities. We are not good at building three-bedroom family homes at a price that means that people such as teachers, nurses and other skilled workers can stay in rural communities as their families grow up. This is a fundamental issue of rural sustainability: how we can ensure that our rural communities are living communities. Neither are we good at building the small, one or two-bedroom homes that enable local people to downsize when the time is right, as the Building More Homes report rightly points out.

I hope that in this regard, the Government’s proposed reforms in the White Paper will be beneficial. A more accurate housing needs assessment and more detailed local plan should facilitate the development of housing that is more suitable to local needs. Plans to give local authorities greater powers to encourage developers to build, hence preventing land banking, are also to be warmly welcomed, even if they do not go as far as the committee report proposed in permitting the levy of council tax on uncompleted sites.

For some of the most significant proposals in the White Paper, however, the devil will inevitably be in the detail. I am thinking particularly of the proposed review of Section 106. While simplifying the process by which planning authorities and developers decide on affordable housing contributions is of course desirable, it is vital that this review improve the tools local authorities have to bring forward affordable housing, rather than hindering them. I would hope that in the course of this review, Ministers will pay particular attention to the use of Section 106 in rural communities, where smaller developments yield much smaller Section 106 contributions—that is, if they yield any contributions at all. Recent planning policy changes to exempt smaller developments from Section 106 requirements seriously imperil the already limited supply of affordable rural housing, and I for one am not convinced that the Government have quite appreciated how serious this problem is.

When it comes to rural affordable housing, I am also still not convinced that the Government understand how policies such as starter homes and right to buy could affect the provision of land for real affordable housing. If the affordable housing built on rural exception sites is liable to be eventually lost to the open market, the incentive, for example, for a philanthropic landowner to provide land for homes for the local community will be lost. This is not a theoretical concern. I know a number of landowners who have talked specifically about this problem and I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will take steps to address it. Regardless of those outstanding concerns, however, the Government have been bold in accepting many of the recommendations of the Economic Affairs Committee and are rowing back on some of the more contentious proposals included in the Housing and Planning Act. I pay tribute to them for that and hope that we will continue to move rapidly in the same direction.

Lord Beecham (Lab):The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans made a strong point about the particular needs of rural communities.

Lord Young of Cookham (Con)… I cannot think of any Select Committee report in either House that has had so many of its recommendations adopted so quickly, sometimes at the expense of Government reordering earlier priorities, as my noble friend Lord Horam said, and as also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Turnbull and Lord Kerslake. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans would describe it as repentance….. The figure of £1.4 billion was referred to by a number of noble Lords as extra money available for affordable housing. In deciding how that money should be spent, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Newcastle and the Bishop of St Albans stressed the importance of stable communities where young people can buy a home and have a stake in the area in which they live. We were invited by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans not to overlook the needs of rural housing. That is, indeed, a priority and there is a new community fund to provide £60 million per year to support housing in rural areas. It is interesting that in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill a number of neighbourhood plans came forward with more homes in their village or community than were actually required by the district plan. That addresses the point so well made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, that nimbyism is moving on, although it may not have totally disappeared.