David Orr: Countryside could die if new homes are not built there

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I LOVE visiting Yorkshire. Although I am a Scot now living in London, I have had the privilege of getting to know Yorkshire pretty well over the years. I have relatives who live in Nidderdale and it is always a joy to visit and replenish my batteries in the clear fresh air of the Yorkshire countryside. I love the views from the top of some of the biggest of the Brimham rocks and some of the wild and rugged landscapes of the Pennines are as good as anything you can find anywhere in the world.

There are some great small towns and villages too. Yorkshire still has proper country pubs and people playing cricket on village greens and all the things we associate with English rural life. I know it also has Menwith Hill – but nowhere is perfect!

This is a life and environment which it is essential we protect. The problem is that for many people, the way to protect it is to ensure that nothing ever changes. No new building, no new roads, no new business – just keep everything exactly as it is.

I think that’s just wrong. Yorkshire does indeed have country pubs – but far fewer than it used to. Villages have been losing their shops and post offices. Village schools in parts of Yorkshire, as in many other rural places, have been closing. Too many villages are in danger of becoming retirement and holiday villages rather than living, dynamic places. Far too many young people leave the countryside, not because they want to but because they can’t afford to stay there. This means that the children who need the schools are not there, the young adults have left and so the pubs, shops and schools close.

Did you know that the average house price in Yorkshire is £21,769 higher in rural areas than in urban areas (£177, 032 compared to £155,263)? Or that on average house prices in rural Yorkshire are over eight times the average salary? Or that workers in rural Yorkshire would need to earn £40,464 to afford an 80 per cent mortgage but the average worker in rural Yorkshire only earns £20,524?

It’s quite a challenge to stay where you were born and grew up if your wages are lower than they would be in a city and the house prices are much higher.

Our countryside belongs to all of us. It is one of the great glories of our nation – and will be seen in all its glory as Yorkshire hosts the Tour de France.

We all want to access it. For many who live in cities, the potential to escape to the countryside for weekends and holidays is what keeps us going. But the countryside is not a fixed thing. Yorkshire looks very different now to how it looked 50 years ago or 100 years ago. The landscapes are not unchanging as different approaches to agriculture mean (for example) that wild flower meadows in England have reduced by 97 per cent since the end of the Second World War. For good or ill, things change.

So I don’t want to concrete over the countryside, either in Yorkshire or anywhere else. In truth, I have never met anyone who wants to do that. But I do want to see new homes built. We need them for the young families who want to stay and work where they grew up. We need them for the people who want to start businesses and bring jobs to some hard pressed local economies. We need them for the people who provide care and other services for older people who want to stay in the communities they have known all their lives and we need them so that these older people can move to smaller homes that suit their needs in later life. In short, we need them so that our villages and market towns can remain real, vibrant, dynamic places, not rural theme parks or dying villages.

As I said earlier, I enjoy visiting my relatives in Nidderdale. Their house was built in 1970. It has not destroyed the landscape – indeed in many ways, as it has matured over the years, it has become an integral part of precisely the landscape we love. Yorkshire would look pretty bleak if it was uninhabited. The towns and villages are integral to it. .

Of course I understand that building homes in beautiful places comes with an obligation to ensure that they are sympathetic to that landscape and to local traditions. We haven’t always fulfilled that obligation. But past failures can’t be allowed to be an excuse for failing to do anything now. There are plenty of parcels of land where we could build the 10 homes in a village, or the 50 in a market town, which is what we need to meet England’s rural housing need. If we really want to protect Yorkshire and preserve the environment, we have to say Yes to Homes.

• David Orr is chief executive of the National Housing Federation which published a report this week entitled Rural housing: Countryside in crisis.