Why affordable housing is at the heart of thriving rural communities
by Phillip Vincent,

Why affordable housing is at the heart of thriving rural communities

As we reach the end of Rural Housing Week, Jo Lavis our Housing Technical Adviser, reflects on why rural communities need affordable housing and what can be done to ensure it gets built with resident’s involvement

Covid-19 has emphasised the importance of ensuring a good supply of affordable housing in rural England

This week, we’ve been showcasing some excellent initiatives from across England where rural communities have been supported by Rural Housing Enablers to develop affordable housing

This type of development has many advantages. The need for new housing is identified by residents and properties are designed to be sensitive to the character of the local area. Above all, they provide homes that are within the financial reach of local people allowing them to stay and live in their community where they are able to work, sustain local services and take part in the activities which make up village life. Such schemes are, therefore, very much at the heart of thriving rural communities.

Covid-19 has emphasised the importance of ensuring a good supply of affordable housing in rural England. Over the past few months we have seen how many rural communities have taken it upon themselves to organise good neighbour schemes and other projects where younger generations have stepped up and played an important role in helping older, more vulnerable residents cope at this difficult time. As such, some of the strongest and most resilient communities have been those that have a mix of people living in the local area.

Sadly, the acute shortage of affordable rural housing in England means that many communities do not have this diversity. Locally earned incomes are lower than in urban areas and house prices are 20% higher. In the most rural districts, households in the bottom 25% of earners need to spend nine times their annual income to buy a home in the lower end of the market. At the same time there is a shortage of properties for rent from housing association and councils - only 8% of the housing stock in villages of less than 3,000 population is in the social housing sector, compared with 19% in urban areas. And last year, 80% of rural housing development was for private sale, most of which were detached houses. At the same time, just 5,558 new affordable homes were built in the countryside . It is not surprising then that of 26 village Housing Needs Surveys carried out by Rural Housing Enablers in the first quarter of this year identified 383 households looking for an affordable home, or which 60% of them earned less than £30k and of these, half earned less than £20k.

What all the case studies we have featured this week have shown is where there is a will there is a way. From the bungalows provided in Seahouses, the Embsay scheme in the Yorkshire Dales, to the Community Land Trust in Lavenham; affordable housing provided with the full engagement of the community offers high quality homes tailored to the needs of individual communities.

Excellent those these schemes are, there are not nearly enough of them to make up for the national shortfall in rural affordable homes. This week we, with the Rural Housing Alliance and Rural Services Network wrote to Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government setting out what Government could do to help. The first change we would like to see is capital grant funding to provide social rented homes that are truly affordable across all rural areas, recognising the higher costs of building small schemes often in remote locations. Anticipated changes to the planning system also need to be rural proofed. These must boost the capacity of rural Local Planning Authorities and build in greater accountability through the Examination process and Local Plan targets to ensure rural affordable housing is delivered. A supportive national planning policy framework must be in place so councils can require affordable housing on all sizes of sites in all rural areas and ensure there is a better supply of rural exception sites.

With or without these changes, leadership at a local level will always be needed to make sure schemes get off the ground. This does not come in a bottle, but it can be nurtured by Rural Housing Enablers and Community Led Housing Hubs. Uniquely they provide independent information and advice, ensure communities can constructively engage throughout the development process and bring the right partners to the table. For such a valuable resource their funding is precarious. It is time their role was acknowledged and properly funded through the capital grant as other professional services are paid for and that the Government continues with the Community Housing Fund.

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