Are we sleepwalking into trouble?

Are we sleep walking into dismantling rural communities?

We work hard with rural communities to identify need, choose sites and design affordable homes that are a credit to the village but I’m concerned this won’t be able to continue.

I agree with Greg Clark. His speech at the LGA conference described exactly why it is so very important to work to protect our rural communities.

He said: “The basic condition of a community is that successive generations of that community should be able to live there. Otherwise they are, in effect, exiled. Exiled from their families, exiled from their roots and their shared history, exiled from each other. For centuries, to be exiled – to be sent away – was considered to be an extreme penalty, reserved for the most serious of offences against the community. Yet in many parts of our country it has become normal for young people to leave, though not out of choice. This might be to find work, but more-and-more it is to find a home they can afford.

“If we want to maintain the chain of community – and a place for the next generation – then we must make sure we have the homes to welcome them to.”

The essence of true community is still alive and kicking in many of our villages. Knowing your neighbours for many years, even generations, comes with downsides as well as upsides but overall is surely better, cheaper for the government, and is a natural way for us to live.

Landowners with a sense of community make low cost ‘Rural Exception Sites’ available. These are sites are outside the village envelope and are not designated for development. They are very often a corner of a farmer’s field. We are only able to develop them because we undertake to keep them affordable and prioritise this housing for people who contribute to the community in perpetuity.

Parish councils ask for affordable housing. We all work hand in hand to identify need, choose sites and design attractive, energy efficient homes that are a credit to the village and leave the best possible legacy. The Rural Pledge frames this relationship of trust.

A number of recent announcements seem to be working together though to seriously damage this. I do not believe any of this was intentionally anti-rural but the combined effect is really worrying. We have:

  • a starting point of very low levels of rural affordable homes, about 8% of total stock in rural areas compared with 20% in urban areas
  • local families taken off housing waiting lists because waiting lists are being culled and they are not in serious housing need
  • new supply of affordable homes reduced by 50-60% now that developers are not providing affordable housing on small sites
  • the extended Right to Buy. Affordable housing in rural communities is mainly houses and we know that the RTB in years past has impacted disproportionately on rural communities.

So we have a shortage of affordable homes for rural communities already and some of these could be lost through Right to Buy. I would also anticipate fewer new affordable homes built in the future. In addition the families that make up the existing community are often invisible now to housing providers and do not have access to affordable housing in the village.

In addition, it is even harder for people to move home to avoid paying the ‘Under Occupancy Penalty’ (Bedroom Tax), or to move for work or social reasons.

It doesn’t stop there sadly, on Rural Exception Site schemes:

  • landowners are likely to stop providing land at low prices if they think someone else is going to make a significant profit or if they think the home will not be protected in perpetuity for people with a connection to the community
  • local people are likely to lose confidence in housing associations and not want to ask us to develop schemes if we cannot guarantee the homes will be held in perpetuity for people with a local connection to the village.

It would be so easy, by accident, to lose something very special.