Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for this important debate. North Devon presents challenges consistent with those in many tourist destinations for delivering new housing alongside retaining our existing housing for local residents. The planning system is not designed for rurality. North Devon is remote, and with a lack of planners, builders and materials, we build at just 18% affordable units due to viability concerns. The local plan has mostly delivered the targeted number of houses, but we still have nothing like the number of affordable homes we need. Everything takes an eternity, and far too often the affordable element is cut out of developments. Brownfield sites—particularly derelict buildings—lie empty for years, if not decades, while stuck in planning disputes, often relating to retaining late-listed façades that are not valuable enough to warrant historical investment schemes yet render them unviable for development.
Fortunately, the five-year land supply is now back intact, but that has taken three years, and numerous developments on beautiful green fields have been waved through due to this situation. Also, the rapid switching by landlords, after the Osborne tax reforms that came in during the pandemic, from long-term rentals to short-term holiday lets means that we have lost 67% of our long-term rentals post-pandemic. Moving to North Devon for work or being able to afford to buy at all is just not viable in one of the fastest rising house price regions in the country. This leaves us with a housing “crisis”—a word I do not use lightly. Hopefully there will be some light on the horizon with accommodation being the next phase of development on our hospital site, as health and social care are the sectors that are worst impacted by the current housing crisis, closely followed by the other emergency services and our schools.
Solutions are hard to come by, but building on endless green fields to tackle the situation in North Devon—which has unique challenges, being highly designated and prized for its remote beauty—is not popular or, to my mind, the least bit desirable. We need a more strategic and better resourced planning system for all of Devon. Our small district councils almost have a rotating door policy of planners moving from one council to another for a better position or a final stop before retirement. I do not blame them, because there is nowhere nicer to retire, but we need an extended and enhanced planning team that proactively wants to deal with the derelict buildings scattered across my constituency. They include empty hotels in Ilfracombe, a care home in Instow, and the former lace factory and the Oliver buildings in Barnstaple, alongside the redevelopment of the old leisure centre.
Numerous empty properties are scattered around, yet in the past week alone my inbox has seen planning applications for properties above shops in Barnstaple town centre turned down as it might flood in 84 years’ time. Locally, the council could reverse the planning restrictions it has placed on properties that, when built, were only allowed to be holiday homes when the owners would now prefer to move to permanent residential. Surely that is to be encouraged, but no, the owners face an endless series of hurdles, from being told they have to sell the property to installing all sorts of extra measures just so that a barn can be converted for a child to live in, although that child is now an adult. But they can convert a holiday let with no problems at all. It is no wonder that developers struggle to build in North Devon. Even when they do, it is easier to build holiday lets than permanent residences, as borne out across endless farms. For small villages, community land trusts need to be simplified, with learnings from rural communities more widely shared. Again, delays in planning mean it is months and months before any response is forthcoming for even pre-application work.
When we do build, we need to ensure that properties are available to local families who want to live and work in North Devon. Far too many properties are sold as holiday lets. We have to take some responsibility as a community if we want to remain a community and not become a cross between a holiday park and a nursing home, with no staff to service either.
I would not mind an additional town, but I am not thinking of Milton Keynes. A town the size of my third biggest town, 4,000 to 5,000 residents, within commuting distance of Exeter, adjacent to the link road, may be an option. Unless we can sort out our strategic planning so that there is public transport and proper facilities, such as health, education, water—we already have a hosepipe ban—and a road network that is fit for purpose, we will struggle to deliver the houses that our community so desperately needs.
First and foremost, we should use the properties we have more effectively. Since being elected to this place, I have campaigned relentlessly on tackling the exponential increase in holiday lets in North Devon. Yes, we love our tourists and warmly welcome folk from all over the world, but our housing market is out of kilter. There are now not enough homes to enable people to live and work in our vital tourism economy. We need: to expedite plans for registers of holiday lets; to introduce planning changes for properties to move from long-term to short-term rentals; to reverse the Osborne tax changes or, at the very least, to ensure an even tax playing field between long-term and short-term rentals; and to ensure there is not a discrepancy within schemes such as energy performance certificates, which are designed to protect tenants but, in old, rural properties, are increasing the flood of landlords exiting the long-term rental market to a tidal wave.
If our housing stock were utilised more of the time, we might not need to build so much. I rent on a close of fewer than 30 houses, where one has been derelict for more than 15 years and almost half are second homes, often left empty for three-quarters of the year or more. These are two or three beds-up, two-down homes, and the latest to be valued, at £575,000, is out of reach for most locals. Is there no way that some of these properties, empty for so much of the year, could be made available to our invaluable public sector workers?
We cannot allow our coastal communities to become ghost towns for much of the year, and I hope more will be done to utilise more effectively the buildings that are already standing, and to improve our strategic planning to tackle and rebalance our housing market.