Examination of Witnesses (Questions 265-279)|
TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
265. Welcome to the Committee. Can I ask you
to identify yourselves for the record, please?
(Mr Wakeford) I am Richard Wakeford, Chief Executive
of the Countryside Agency and Jo Lavis who works in the housing
side of the Agency.
266. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy to go straight to questions?
(Mr Wakeford) If you would allow me a couple of minutes
I would be grateful because I wanted to set out the big scene.
We are interested in getting the right housing built in the countryside
where about 20 per cent of people live. From that 20 per cent
of people about 30,000 new households a year are forming because
of the way in which we are living our lives (living longer and
all those sorts of things which you know already). The net migration
figures show that another 40,000 or so households are moving into
the countryside each year. The reason why that is important is
that they are buying on the market and unless we actually build
sufficient supply of houses then the prices of houses on the market
are going up which makes it very difficult for anyone who is growing
up in the countryside to find a home that they could buy. At the
same time the Right to Buy that you were talking about has already
decimatedalthough not in its technical sensepublic
housing, affordable housing in the countryside. Fourteen per cent
of rural housing in the countryside is public or social rented
compared with 23 per cent in urban areas. I just wanted to put
on record in the frankest terms that we estimate a need for 10,000
new affordable housing units per annum over the next ten years,
split about half and half between villages of less than 3,000
population and market towns of between 3,000 and 10,000. I know
you are interested in solutions, so I would rather you asked us
about solutions, but I just wanted to set that rather blunt picture
on the record, if you would not mind.
267. Basically your memorandum claims the planning
system is the main constraint. Can you justify that?
(Mr Wakeford) We were leafing through some papers
just before we came round here this morning and I came across
a letter dated 1 December 1992 from one Richard Wakeford who was
head of development plans and policies at the Department of the
Environment. It said, "Correspondence from local planning
authorities and the need for the Department to intervene in draft
planning policies has made us aware that the implementation of
affordable housing policies is causing some local planning authorities
difficulty. The enclosed draft guidelines do not represent a change
of policy; rather they elaborate current policies. They explain
more clearly what is or is not permissible in order to enable
local planning authorities to set out plan policies that are more
likely to survive legal challenge." The difficulty is that
ten years on
Chairman: It was a waste of time sending the
letter then, was it not?
268. It shows we should not trust this Richard
(Mr Wakeford) The fact is that this is not a new issue.
It is a struggle around the boundaries of the planning system
and we have learned from the continuing uncertainty that local
authorities have. Large funding amounts that are at stake, in
a sense, because if a housing site in the countryside is unconstrained
by occupancy in any sense, it is probably worth £100,000.
If it is constrained to be designated for affordable housing it
is probably not worth more than £5,000 or £10,000. For
each housing plot there is an enormous amount at stake. So therefore
it is not surprising that local authorities are treading gingerly
and that land owners in particular are very defensive about providing
affordable housing as well as market housing. That has led the
Agency to develop the scheme which is set out in the annex to
the submission to the Committee which we have called Sites for
Social Diversity Policy. We are coming up now with positive proposals
to try and make the best of the planning system as it is currently
269. So the Government wants to protect the
countryside; you, as its Agency are supposed to do that, but what
you are really saying is "Let us get some building done in
(Mr Wakeford) Protecting the countryside means protecting
rural communities as much as the rural environment. We know that
there is scope within the countryside within many settlements
to build new houses within the character of that settlement so
that you can secure the social diversity of countryside communities.
If we do not do that then the countryside that we are trying to
protect will not be one that you and I would recognise in ten
or twenty years' time.
270. Is that not going to be unsustainable?
Because what you are really saying is that the expensive houses
are going to be bought up by people who will commute backwards
and forwards from urban areas which is clearly an unsustainable
way of life, and to compensate for them buying up those houses
you are actually going to put in a few affordable houses expanding
the communities. Is that not really very unsatisfactory?
(Mr Wakeford) I think there are some really quite
fundamental choices open to us, but I would track it back much
further to the creation of households. The fact is that something
likeif we are following current trends30,000 new
households a year are coming out of rural communities. If you
do not provide new housing for those communities whether in the
affordable or the market sector then they are being forced to
go and move to towns. Towns themselves are not without their problems.
At the same time, rural communities are faced with this rural
migration from towns which is increasing pressure on the housing.
I think that we could do a lot more to build housing in an environmentally
acceptable way in rural communities and sustain the countryside
in the true sense of sustainable development, but we actually
have to acknowledge that as a nation what we are doing is gaining
more and more households. If we are going to house those people,
we need more and more houses. We need them in the countryside,
in the towns and villages in the countryside, as much as we need
them in urban areas.
271. I wonder if you could tell us if you have
any practical solutions to the affordable housing crisis and how
you think the funds that may become available could best be spent.
(Mr Wakeford) Perhaps I could ask Jo to talk a little
bit about some of our experience with Rural Housing Enablers who
are actually on the ground tackling the practical problems, and
to touch on the Sites for Social Diversity proposals that we have
put forward because we are putting forward proposals, but we need
them to be taken on board and driven home.
(Ms Lavis) We fund, with the Housing Corporation and
local authorities a series of posts called Rural Housing Enablers
and they work with the communities, the local authorities, housing
associations and land owners to identify what the housing needs
are; to try and identify and bring forward sites and funding together.
Partly in response to some of the discussion earlier, that is
one of the ways we have found overcomes the NIMBY objection to
sites coming forward, very much because people can see they are
involved with the process and they see what comes out of it as
meeting the needs of their community. What is encouraging is that
in those communities where Rural Housing enablers have worked,
those communities are now looking for a second phase of development
because they recognise that what it is providing is the opportunity
for people within their communities to stay there, to build a
support network of friends and family; it enables people to work
in the community sustaining rural businesses and rural economy.
But the biggest obstacle that our Rural Housing enablers face
is actually trying to find sites. Increasingly they are having
to rely on the Rural Exception site policy which only delivers
a handful of schemesalthough very beneficial to those individual
communitiesacross the country as a wholeit provides
very little. So what we felt was that we needed to look at some
way in which we could ensure that the land could come forward,
give the confidence to the local authority that what they were
allocating for would meet the housing need of that community.
That it gave the community certainty to know what that land was
going to be used for because that is part of the reason that you
get NIMBY objections because they just do not know what is going
to be on their land or back yard, and we were able to provide
some certainty to the developers so that they knew what was going
to be expected of them when they put in a bid for particular sites.
The proposal we came up with was the Sites for Social Diversity.
Basically what the policy proposes is that when a local authority
is reviewing its local plan then they look at the tenure and social
economic structure of the individual rural communities. But where
there is a significant imbalance compared with the distribution
for the region or the country and they only want to allocate one
site for development within that community for environmental reasons,
then they can allocate it as a Site for Social Diversity policy.
What is actually built on that site is determined by the local
housing needs assessment, so that dictates what sort of tenure
and type of housing will be provided. It is then secured, in the
same way as Rural Exception site policy using section 106 agreement
and the use of a registered social landlord to do the development.
We feel that that it provides the transparency and certainty that
is being looked for. We understand from QC's advice which we have
taken that it falls within the current legal framework and within
272. Could this approach be applicable to all
areas including towns or only smaller villages such as suggested
in your evidence?
(Ms Lavis) We believe that it is suitable for those
areas where there is very high pressure of demand for housing,
but it is actually only suitable for those communities where one
development site would come forward because at the moment it is
not legally possible for plans to distinguish between two different
types of housing use.
273. How would this be achieved? How are these
sites released in those areas?
(Ms Lavis) They would be allocated in the same way
as a housing site is currently allocated within a local plan.
One of the questions which has been raised is whether or not land
owners would be willing to bring forward their sites. We are aware
of that and are looking at whether there is a possibility of doing
something with the tax system to give a tax break or some incentive
to land owners to bring it forward, but we also have some advice
which has been put together for us which actually shows there
is a significant return for the land owner if the site can be
released at a cost which is more than an Exception site value
but lower than an open market value, but still comes within the
cost limits of the Housing Corporation.
274. How has that been received by the Ministry?
(Ms Lavis) We put the proposal in front of the Department
at its very early stages. In fact its title is, I am afraid, their
responsibility, quite long winded as it is. They certainly encouraged
us to pursue it. In fact, in the Planning Obligation Consultation
Paper they have asked for responses to whether local authorities
should be able to allocate sites for affordable housing where
there is demonstrable need and it would help the inclusivity of
those communities. In principle it is very, very close to what
we were proposing so we feel it has their support.
275. In your evidence you state that you prefer
Sites for Social Diversity to the system of tariffs. What is wrong
with the proposal for tariffs? What do you object to?
(Ms Lavis) We have two concerns about tariffs. The
first is that if there is a high housing need within an area and
a local authority therefore decide that they need a high tariff
to cover the amount of affordable housing that is needed, there
is every possibility that the developer will think they do not
actually want to do this, they cannot afford to do it so they
will not go ahead with the development. This would actually exacerbate
the problem; no houses at all.
276. Do you have any examples of where this
has actually occurred?
(Ms Lavis) No because obviously the tariff system
is not in.
277. No, but do you have anything comparable
with which to compare it?
(Mr Wakeford) Would you like me to bring in an overseas
example because in New Jersey, in the United States, following
a judgment in the courts there was a requirement for a slice of
housing to be brought in so that every time you built market housing
you built affordable housing alongside. As the housing market
went up and down the production of affordable housing went up
and down with that housing market and not with the needs in society.
What is more, where the house builders wanted to build the affordable
housing was not actually where the affordable housing needs were.
So they had a sort of broad formula type approach which looked
fine in economic theory, but when it came to practicalities it
was not working well on the ground.
278. Could you explain to the Committee the
Rural Exceptions policy?
(Mr Wakeford) I call this non planning or anti planning.
The way it works is that a local authority provides for a majority
of its housing in its local plan on sites mainly in market towns
and bigger places, but it recognises in its mind that there is
a need for housing for less well off people in villages. Instead
of actually putting anything on the plan to show that housing
will be built in villages it does nothing. So the plan shows no
development. If you show no development on the plan then you turn
round and you say "But we would still permit some development
there if it was rural affordable housing. But you would not have
any permission for anything else." What you can then do is
to bring forward affordable housing without having to pay the
full market price for land. It seems to us to be a device which
is not welcome in many communities because the communities look
at the plan to see how that community is going to develop, see
that the envelope of the village is set and then they discover
that despite what it says on the plan about the future of that
place some new housing is going to be built and it is not shown
on the plan. Our approach in the proposals that are attached to
our evidence is about a much more honest approach where you say,
"Yes, communities do need this housing; we will put it in
the plan. We will designate these areas so that they are there
to achieve social diversity policy objectives" and that can
be run through the planning system.
279. You are very sceptical in the belief of
how much that will produce.
(Mr Wakeford) It certainly does not produce anywhere
near as many units as are needed and the way it works requires
a great deal of what you might call administrative overheads through
people like Rural Housing Enablers.