It’s #RuralHousingWeek and across the country communities, local authorities and housing associations are showcasing their fantastic affordable housing schemes. There is so much to celebrate. Communities positively engaged in shaping their futures, partners working well together, beautifully designed new developments, and most importantly of all, stories about the difference these schemes can make to people’s lives. It’s also an opportunity to reflect and look forward to what is to come.
What all these endeavours show is the difference small developments of affordable homes can make to a village. Something that is needed more than ever.
Over the last two years the pandemic has heightened the challenges local people experience in finding a home they can afford. Urban families have sought homes with more space in the countryside, fuelling an increase in house prices. The ONS reported in July 2021 that house prices were rising at three times the national rate in some rural and coastal areas. At the same time, demand for ‘Stay vacation’ has led to the sale of private rented homes for second and holiday lets in coastal areas and National Parks. This has compounded the problem for many low-income households who, because they cannot afford to buy, end up renting from a private landlord as the only option in areas where there is a shortage of social housing. Let’s not forget only 8% of the housing stock in villages is owned by housing associations or councils.
The most devastating consequence is people becoming homeless. Research published by CPRE revealed that in 2019, homelessness in rural communities had risen by 85%. Others have had to make hard choices, either staying in unsuitable housing or moving away. Many are forced to choose the latter, which in turn undermines the ability of villages to thrive. Leavers are often of working age, they use and work in local businesses, provide local public services and are frequently the people older family members and friends turn to for support. As has been well documented, the loss of these people triggers a cycle into unsustainability. It also contributes to the rapid ageing of the rural population and its increasing vulnerability as informal support networks collapse.
It need not be this way. There is so much that rural affordable housing schemes can offer. High quality homes improve peoples’ health and life chances. They mean businesses can attract and retain a workforce, in turn encouraging new businesses into rural areas, and widening and improving the quality of job opportunities. Community engagement, energy efficient and locally sensitive design are what makes these rural exception site developments so special. In short, affordable housing contributes to Levelling Up rural areas.
But we cannot escape the fact there is not enough of it. Last year only 4,015 new homes were provided in smaller villages, compared with an estimated need for 8,300 per annum.
The question is whether the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will improve the situation? There are certainly some positive proposals. Stronger Local and Neighbourhood Plans stand to reduce the number of inappropriately scaled housing developments in rural areas that contribute little to meet the needs of existing residents. A more positive appetite for development should flow from the increased opportunities for community engagement, including lighter touch Neighbourhood Priority Statements that have to be taken into account when Local Plans are being prepared. The introduction of Design Codes, potentially at community level, will not only drive better aesthetics but also deliver the type of development and provision of green and open space that brings social, economic and environmental benefits to rural communities.
The Bill also presents some risks to the future delivery of rural affordable housing. The new Environmental Impact Outcomes and Reports will not include social and economic outcomes. The danger is this will turn the clock back to planning policies that constrain development in rural areas with the well-rehearsed negative consequences for the sustainability of rural communities.
The introduction of an Infrastructure Levy to pay for affordable housing will include a threshold below which the Levy will not be charged. This is likely to apply to small sites, which make up most rural residential development. The result is that no affordable housing will be provided as part of these market schemes. These sites will also command a higher land value so it is likely that landowners will be unwilling to release land for rural exception site development. Even when the Infrastructure Levy is paid, as yet there is no guarantee that the proceeds will result in affordable housing on site and may instead be used elsewhere.
So, looking forward to the coming year, there’s much to do. Following the example of the Secretary of State’s very welcome statement that rural housing association properties will be exempted from the proposed Right to Buy, there is reason to be hopeful that the Government will ensure all policies support rural affordable housing. It could immediately show that commitment by providing stable funding for Rural Housing Enablers who act as independent facilitators helping communities engage and secure the affordable housing that meets their village’s needs.
Most importantly, let’s keep building these wonderful affordable homes in our villages and have even more to celebrate during next year’s Rural Housing Week.
Jo Lavis MBE MRTPI
Rural Housing Solutions