Last month Penny Henderson won the “top of the policies” vote at Pragmatic Radicalism’s event in Kendal in South Lakeland. The winning proposal tackled the question of reducing rural homelessness
The right to a home is a basic human right. And a home in the community in which you have lived your whole life hardly seems too much to ask. Labour should stand for strong communities, whether these are rural or urban communities.
Rural communities need to know that Labour is with them if we are to be one nation. This does not need to be an empty commitment either. There are simple, practical steps that the party can commit to, which would make a real difference.
One such measure would be that the ownership of land and/or property derelict for a long period of time (e.g. 5 years) should revert to the local authority and be given over to affordable housing and/or council rented properties.
Gaining planning permission for new housing developments is often challenging in national parks but this should be less complicated in the context of these “brown field” developments. There are a surprisingly large number of properties that fall into this category.
Public authorities have the power to compulsorily purchase derelict land and property but it is rarely used and is legally complicated. The Labour party should make this procedure easier for local authorities.
While there is hardly any land available for new building in the Lake District, South Lakeland has “about 1,000 empty dwellings” (councillor J.Brook, housing and development portfolio holder, South Lakeland district council).
What a difference it would make if even some of these houses could be occupied!
There may be good reason, such as serious illness, for some of these homes being unoccupied and we are not saying houses should be taken from owners with no appeal or recompense. But many are becoming derelict at the same time as families want for a home. This is an unjust mismatch and we must cut through the legal thicket that stands between us and a fairer arrangement.
The present government gives loans to owners of empty houses so that the building can be improved. This is a reward for their failure to properly maintain and use their homes and hardly addresses the fundamental problem. Instead of rewarding failure, we should be compulsorily purchasing homes that fall derelict and making them available to people who will value them.
At minimum, this proposal would incentivise action on the part of recalcitrant owners who have been content to allow their properties to sit idle and unused for years.
The Lake District is a tremendous asset to the whole country. But, like the rest of our countryside, it should be a lived environment. That increasingly requires that we take bolder steps to secure affordable housing for local people.
Penny Henderson is secretary of Westmorland and Lonsdale CLP