Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Country Land and Business Association (SHC 17)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee Inquiry into planning and sustainable housing and communities

  2.  The CLA represents 45,000 members in England and Wales, who between them operate around 250 different types of businesses in rural areas covering a range of activities including agriculture, forestry, tourism and other commercial interests. The CLA is in a unique position in representing a broad cross-section of interests within the rural economy. As people who live and work in rural areas, the CLA members have a keen and direct interest in the continued prosperity of rural areas. The current debate on housing, particularly affordable housing, potentially has important repercussions on rural communities and the rural economy therefore our interest in this paper needs little amplification.

GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER'S STATEMENT

  3.  The CLA welcomes the commitment to provide an affordable home for all. However, there is little specific mention of rural housing problems. It seems most money is targeted at the South East Key Worker problem. Although there is no reason why key workers in the South East could not be in a rural location, it does not provide extra funds to the Housing Corporation Rural Programme or indeed an incentive to rural housing in general.

  4.  We are concerned about the commitments to Green Belt, whilst we agree that urban sprawl should be checked, it is important that rural communities in Green Belt can survive, this requires a more positive approach to Green Belt policy and guidance, as detailed in our recent report "A Living Working Green Belt".

OUR VISION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

  5.  The CLA supports the the need to provide balanced thriving rural communities. This involves an appropriate level of housing, transport and services. What the people who live and work in the countryside do not want to see is:

    —  Excessive requirements for housing as part of the national extrapolations of housing need, with disproportionately large housing developments on greenfield sites, the edge of rural towns and villages. Such developments absorb resources, and put pressure on schools and other local services. Doubling the size of a village or town, for example, simply does not work. An assessment of rural needs must lie behind decisions on housing allocation in the countryside.

    —  Excessively large economic or infrastructure projects that take up valuable greenfield sites, water resources and other services.

    —  Such projects then crowding out locally generated development or much needed local housing, which is refused planning consent because local populations feel sated with development.

    —  There is a need for a mix of housing, low cost and market priced, owner occupied and rented social and open market.

  6.  The CLA supports the principle of mixed use development and believes that such an approach can be achieved in rural areas. We consider that some growth in housing in rural areas is necessary and achievable, what would not be acceptable is the grafting onto villages or towns of disproportionate housing developments, especially when they are not accompanied by proper transport, education, health and recreation services. In addition, it is important that the issue of design is addressed to ensure that new housing in the development in rural areas respects the character and quality of those areas.

  7.  It is important to recognise the effects of high house prices in rural areas and the implications of this phenomenon on local communities and achieving sustainable rural communities. One reason why house prices are currently inflated is due to restrictive planning policies and with tightly drawn rural settlement boundaries that makes development plan scarce and therefore a high cost. A more flexible planning system that recognises rural housing needs can assist in overcoming this issue. However, planning alone will not solve this problem and the solution will require a range of measures.

DEMAND FOR HOUSING

  8.  The CLA considers that the demand for housing and the place where land is available will not necessarily coincide, hence there is a need for flexibility in the approach to be adopted. This will include the distribution of development between towns, villages and possibly new settlements as appropriate to particular areas of the country. It is important to realise that part of the household growth figures is locally generated demand in the countryside, any approach to meeting housing needs should primarily accommodate this demand.

  9.  At the same time we believe the release of isolated greenfield sites for development has repercussions which extend far beyond the economic consequences for the owner(s) of the released land. Local views are more and more polarised on issues relating to the development of rural areas, and extensive consultation will have to take place at the local level to ensure that development takes place where it is needed, in ways which are acceptable to the local population.

  10.  In market towns, there is a considerable amount of residential accommodation available over shops that are standing empty at present. The towns are deserted at night. If the financial incentives existed for the owners of the shops to modernise this accommodation it would not only provide much-needed low cost accommodation for young people, but would revitalise the small towns at the same time

PROMOTING A HEALTHY PRIVATE SECTOR

  11.  The CLA and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) commissioned a survey and report in 1996 by the Centre for Housing Policy, York University, into rural housing. ("Private renting in rural areas." University of York).

  12.  In this work with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we have concentrated on the role of the private rented sector and the desirability of policies to improve supply and flexibility within the market at acceptable cost. This is described below.

  13.  The report established the positive contribution made by the private rented sector in rural areas, which meets the needs of many people, but not all. The report also determined that while the number of privately rented homes is not likely to reduce on the basis of the present law, there is no real prospect of an increase. Drawing on this work, and having regard to other factors, the CLA concludes that a number of issues need to be addressed if some of the 3.8 million new households over the next 20 years are to be accommodated within the private rented sector in rural areas. These include recognition that:

    —  the rural private rented sector makes a major contribution to housing in the countryside;

    —  the availability of private rented housing which forms part of a larger rural property appears to be static, and as things stand there is little prospect of this part of the sector expanding because investment returns are generally low;

    —  there is a real risk that any increased regulation of rent or term would affect confidence in the market and reduce the number of properties available;

    —  there is a need to provide a mechanism to ensure that the standard of rural housing is maintained with a role for improvement grants;

    —  the need to provide accommodation for local people on low incomes is far from satisfied and constitutes a major problem.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

  14.  The CLA considers that current housing policy has not developed in a way that will solve rural housing needs. Without affordable housing in the countryside, not only are people excluded (many ending up, against their will, relocated in urban areas) but also businesses and whole communities suffer.

PLANNING ISSUES

  15.  We are concerned that the current approach in PPG 3, ie the sequential approach, while achieving its urban concentration aim, will mean that little residential development could occur in rural areas. This would ultimately be detrimental to the economy of these areas and the Government's aim of achieving sustainable rural communities. In addition, we have doubts whether local authorities will have the resources to carry out the brownfield assessment adequately. If these surveys are not carried out efficiently the whole principle of the sequential test will be undermined.

  16.  The CLA acknowledges that PPG 3 represents existing planning policy with regard to affordable housing and makes it clear that affordable housing is an important material planning consideration. It emphasises that the planning system has a key role to play in assessing needs and ensuring that they are met within new development. This guidance will strengthen the capability of planners to control the type and affordability of new housing, particularly in rural areas. However, the current approach to providing rural affordable housing is failing to meet rural needs; this seems to be confirmed by recent statements from the Countryside Agency. "Exceptions sites", though successful to a degree have only brought forward a small percentage of sites. In addition, the provision of sites obtained by planning gain is negligible, due to the size of housing schemes in rural areas. There is a need for an adequate policy that will allow a satisfactory level of affordable rural housing.

  17.  We were disappointed that the revision of PPG 3, in 2000, did not take the opportunity to address the above problem and suggest other imaginative and innovative ways of achieving affordable housing in rural areas. We would suggest the following as a starting point:

    —  Local planning authorities still seem to place too greater weight on other factors, such as environmental protection when considering exception sites. There is no priority given to the housing need in such circumstances.

    —  There is a case for land to be allocated for affordable housing. Such a policy will need to be carefully worded to ensure that occupation remains as affordable housing. It must also ensure that it does not restrict the provision of land for affordable housing, due to increased hope value by allocating the site. There may be merit in looking at the proposal put forward by the Countryside Agency for "Sites of Social Diversity". Though we would stress that this proposal should not be at the expense of current exception sites policy, it should complement this provision.

    —  An increase in the population of villages where local authorities can set appropriate thresholds for affordable housing may be appropriate, possibly doubling the figure.

    —  There needs to be a clear definition of affordable. This will vary from region to region. There may be a need for a mix of affordable homes, to rent and low cost to buy these issues need definition.

    —  Affordable housing needs to be for the right people in the right location. This means having up to date local needs surveys to ensure that the housing meets a specific rural need. These surveys need to readily available to landowners and providers of affordable accommodation. The policy will fail if affordable housing is provided and occupied by people who are relocated out or urban areas to meet its housing problem.

    —  Affordable housing needs to meet a range of house types. Such housing is not necessarily small two bed terraces; family homes need to be provided. Again this relates to an up to date local needs survey.

    —  Affordable housing is part of a wider debate in rural areas. There needs to be a close link to adequate employment opportunities and services such as shops and schools.

  18.  Affordable housing policies must be monitored by local authorities. This allows changes in need to be addressed, meeting the Government's objective of the right housing in the right place at the right time.

RIGHT TO BUY

  19.  CLA members have made sites available for low cost schemes. It should be stressed, however, that the proposals of the previous Government to legislate for a right to buy rural Housing Association stock affected the confidence that such donated sites would remain perpetually available to the social housing sector. If more sites are to come forward the Government will need to convince owners that land given for social housing will be protected for this purpose.

  20.  The CLA supports the current recognition of the advice on resale restrictions and right to buy in rural areas. However, we feel there may be merit in increasing the threshold limit from 3,000 population, this would allow some larger settlements to retain their affordable housing stock. Although we have not researched a specific figure we would, for the purposes of debate, suggest doubling this threshold.

HOUSING CORPORATION APPROVED DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME

  21.  The CLA welcomes the improvements suggested in the Rural White Paper (Our Countryside: The Future. A Fair Deal for Rural England, 2000) to increase funding and provision of affordable housing, however we question whether this will be enough to meet the identified need. There is serious under-funding in the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. The Housing Corporations approved development programme has been increased to around 6% in rural areas but this only brings the figure back to a level it was at a few years ago. There is a need to continue to increase this resource.

  22.  We welcome the increase in homes to 1,600 by 2003-04, as identified in the Rural White Paper, and we would encourage the Housing Corporation, as the Government's Housing Agency, to ensure this figure is met.

  23.  When setting investment priorities, we suggest care is taken when setting indicators. We continue to argue that there must be a move away from incorrect indicators of affluence such as car ownership. More detailed site-specific indicators must be used.

RURAL STRATEGIES

  24.  The CLA supports the need for sustainable, mixed and inclusive communities and agree that this can only be achieved if strategies are based on all stakeholders.

  25.  Whilst we agree that strategies reflect the Rural White Paper by considering flexible local transport arrangements, this must include recognition that transport in rural areas does not only involve a range of public transport modes. The use of the car is a necessity not a luxury in many cases, while there is also a significant proportion that has no access to a car. Such cases add weight to the argument that the housing strategy must be flexible to provide homes in more remote settlements and not just large local service centres. Thereby allowing people to remain in the communities they are familiar with.

  26.  The CLA fully supports the needs for housing strategies to be based upon up to date needs surveys. We wonder whether there is a place for the Housing Corporation to specifically encourage local authorities to carry out such work.

FISCAL ISSUES

  27.  Our final point on social housing relates to fiscal issues. New small business ventures are hampered often by the lack of affordable dwellings for employees of rural businesses. The Government should signal further encouragement to the construction of low-cost social or community housing by providing a deferment of any capital gains where, and to the extent that, those gains are re-invested in the construction, re-construction, alternation or improvement of assets that become social or community housing. Perhaps defining the latter by reference to the occupation of the dwelling and whether the housing is affordable.

11 October 2002



 
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