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22 Oct 2002 : Column 169continued
Dr. Iddon: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the right to buy in connection with rural villages. Will he state whether the Conservative party would give access to all housing association properties in rural villages through the right to buy, just as it did with council housing? If so, I do not have much sympathy with his comments about the lack of affordable housing in rural constituencies.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that intervention, because it allows me to put on record that we are consulting on that matter, and I am certain that we will wish to retain the current exemption that exists for the right to acquire, namely that rural settlements of under 3,000 people are likely to be
Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of affordable housing in rural areas. Does he regret the previous Conservative Administration's policy of providing a 50 per cent. council tax rebate to second homes in rural areas? That policy added to the inflationary impact of the purchase of second homes in such areas. This year, #200 million of taxpayers' money will be spent subsidising the second homes of the wealthy in areas where many thousands of rural folk cannot even afford their first home. Does he regret that, and would he support legislation to remove that council tax discount and make the money available to provide affordable housing in rural areas?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that lengthy intervention. I was one of the first Members to ask for local authorities to be given the discretion to charge full council tax for second and part-time homes. I fully support that policy today; it is in line with Conservative party policy to give local authorities in general more discretion to make decisions at local level.
Ms King: I understand why the Conservative party has supported and introduced restrictions on the right to buy in rural areas. Please will he tell us why that is not applicable, so far as his party is concerned, to urban areas, where there is a desperate shortage of affordable housing as a result of the right to buy?
The crisis of homelessness in rural areas continues to escalate. Since 1997, the number has risen by 13 per cent. and increased at three times the rate of homelessness in urban areas. More than 17,000 rural households are unintentionally homeless and in priority need.
There is a drastic shortage of new houses. We are building the lowest number of houses since records began: 160,000 is the lowest number since 1927, excluding the war years. That has given rise to the current housing problems and high market values.
What would the Conservatives do to address the problem of homelessness and build more affordable housing? First, we would ensure there was enough pump-priming to return brownfield land to use for building. That is critical, because it would stop
The Government have done two things that have adversely affected the cleaning up of brownfield land. They abolished the derelict land reclamation grant, and they made a muddle of European gap funding. We think some pump-priming is essential to return brownfield land to a state in which developers will want to develop it. The director of the Environmental Industries Commission, Mervin Hyman, recently argued:
As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested, we shall give careful consideration to the 753,000 houses that are empty. The Minister mentioned a tax allowance to return empty homes above shops to use. Perhaps she will tell us how effective it has been, and how many empty flats have been returned to use. It seems to us that, given the ratio of eight empty houses to one homeless person, there should be some scope to encourage, in particular, institutional landowners with a blanket policy of not letting flats above shops to consider doing so.
In fact, we want to encourage more private sector investment in affordable homes, full stop. That may require us to examine the current tax arrangements, and to seek changes in housing law. At present, very little private sector investment goes into the residential sector in general, let alone the affordable sector.
Mr. Hancock: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to stray too far from his point about pump-priming. He did not explain how the Conservatives would prime the pump. It is important for us to understand how they would overcome the present difficulties in returning brownfield sites to use.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Conservative party has been the most successful at urban regeneration. Members need only recall our schemes in the centre of Leeds, Glasgow and docklands. They need only recall how we managed to accumulate enough land to make developers want to redevelop it, and how we created the infrastructure to enable them to do so.
The hon. Gentleman can attack the details of our policy as much as he likes, but I wish we could hear some detail from him. He has said that he will pump-prime the return of derelict land to use, but has not told us how he will do it. He has said that he will return empty houses to use, but has not told us how he will do that either. Let us at least hear some decent policy proposals, so that we can attack them if we do not agree with them. We cannot do that if we do not know what they are.
Let me now turn to the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). Not only would he impose VAT on all new houses, thus adding between #7,500 and #10,000 to the pricehis constituents will be very interested in that proposalbut on 24 July he said: