Let’s Hear it for Rural
Sue Chalkley, Chief Executive of Hastoe Housing Association, said:
Like many colleagues from across the housing industry, I have been waiting patiently for the arrival of the Government’s much-heralded Housing White Paper. As the largest specialist provider of rural homes, Hastoe wanted the White Paper to recognise that 20% of our population lives in rural communities and understand that rural communities needs rural specific solutions if they are to thrive and be places where people can afford to live.
Today we finally got the chance to see the Government’s proposals. So, what does Hastoe think of them?
Firstly, what a welcome change it is to see a White Paper at all! It’s a welcome return to this more considered approach. It was also good to see so many MPs in the House of Commons for the Secretary of State’s announcement. The numbers participating in the debate that followed, showed that, rightly, MPs across the country realise the need for change.
For understandable reasons much of the White Paper will help raise supply of new homes in urban areas – including by upping the density of development. It proposes making better use of “suitable” brownfield sites and underused land, and to enable high-quality estate regeneration. It focuses on quantity.
There is welcome news for rural homes too. Our villages need 5,000 more homes each year – a shortfall that is pricing younger people and families out of our villages, distorting the rural demographic and the cause of many closed local schools and other facilities – a irreversible trend. To tackle this, the White Paper includes proposals to encourage small builders, who are far more likely to want to build on small rural sites and will build the quality homes that they, as local contractors, and the village will be proud of for years to come. It also understands the contribution that housing associations can make to the national housing problem although we await further detail of what financial support will be provided.
It also says it will give “much stronger support for ‘rural exception’ sites”, which is very welcome. Rural exception sites are sites on the edge of villages, made available for small-scale house building on the proviso that the homes are for local people and will be affordable in perpetuity. That these sites exist at all is usually thanks to the generosity of rural landowners, who gift or sell the land to a housing association at a low price. Around one fifth of all rural affordable homes last year were built on rural exception sites – making a vital contribution to rural housing supply. Most importantly though these sites are led by the community – true community-led development. These are schemes which provide the community and the landowners with a good experience and one which often leads to a request for a second, third or even forth scheme deleivered in the same way. This is development done the right way round and led by the people who need it.
We do think that the Government could go further, and support landowners to release more sites for affordable homes. We have now been involved in two conferences for rural landowners, the most recent in the South Downs National Park. Both were oversubscribed – many landowners want to make a contribution to their communities and understand the desperate need for affordable housing. We must do more to incentivise this new source of rural homes
We are also concerned about the mention of Starter Homes again in connection with rural exception sites. Rural communities were given an exemption from these in the Housing and Planning Act after much debate so it is a shame that this has returned again. The White Paper suggests that building Starter Homes could be “acceptable” on these sites and we will be seeking clarification on this. And, small sites must have some affordable homes built on them. Currently sites of fewer than 10 units don’t need any affordable homes – a loophole that is closing off two thirds of the supply of rural affordable homes.
In closing, it’s worth bearing in mind that rural areas are very different to urban areas, with very different economic, social and demographic characteristics. The specific needs of rural areas are often overlooked or misunderstood by policy-makers – resulting in policy and legislation that is wholly unsuitable for rural communities. So we will be responding to the consultation, to ensure that the voice of rural England is heard.