Rural homelessness is a growing crisis and this is why it must be tackled - Jonathan Webb

The housing crisis in England has seen many people forced into increasingly unaffordable housing beyond their means. While this problem is often framed as one affecting urban areas, the lack of genuinely affordable housing also affects rural areas.

This crisis bears a heavy cost as it pushes young people and low-income earners out of the places they call home. Not only does this raise the question about whether rural communities can survive and thrive without a future generation, it also bears a significant human cost, with increasing numbers of people being pushed into rural homelessness.

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Housing affordability in rural areas has significantly worsened in the past decade. Since 2011, the amount of social housing built in rural areas has decreased by 83 per cent. Instead, consecutive governments have encouraged the construction of so-called ‘affordable housing’ in its place. This type of housing can be set at up to 80 per cent of market rents, meaning that in many areas, it is only marginally more affordable than private rented housing.

Homelessness is not just prevalent in urban communities.Homelessness is not just prevalent in urban communities.
Homelessness is not just prevalent in urban communities.

The root of the problem lies with government policy. Since 2012, successive governments have made the idea of affordable rent far more attractive to housing developers than social housing.

Government funding has channelled significant amounts of money into the construction of affordable rent homes, largely at the expense of building social rent homes.

Faced with a shortage of social rent housing that is genuinely affordable and stuck with the option of ‘affordable rent’ or private rent, many low-income households increasingly face a stark choice between trying to afford high rents in their local area or looking for cheaper housing elsewhere.

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Rural communities are not immune from homelessness.Rural communities are not immune from homelessness.
Rural communities are not immune from homelessness.

In rural areas, younger people increasingly find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to move away from the towns and villages they grew up in to find better paid work and more affordable housing. At the same time, house prices in rural areas are, on average, four times as high as they were in 1997. With home ownership a distant prospect for many young people and a lack of genuinely affordable housing, inequality between young and old is a significant problem in rural areas. The ability for rural communities to sustain their future without a burgeoning and young population poses an existential threat.

At its most extreme, a lack of genuinely affordable housing pushes people into homelessness. From April to December 2018, an estimated 30,000 were registered as homeless in rural areas. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Often homelessness is hidden, and the true numbers may be far higher. The most visible and challenging aspect of experienced homelessness is rough sleeping.

While any rough sleeper will face extreme hardship, the very nature of rural rough sleeping exacerbates this hardship. Exposure to the elements, geographical challenges in accessing local health and housing services, and a lack of on-the-street support are challenges rural rough sleepers face on a day-to-day basis. Rural rough sleeping has risen by 33 per cent since 2012 – the problem is a growing one. In the face of severe cuts to local authorities and a lack of support for building genuinely affordable housing from the government, rural areas now find themselves battling a housing crisis.

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At IPPR, we believe the best way to tackle this crisis is threefold. First, we need to build more genuinely affordable housing, primarily in the form of social housing. Estimates of this housing need suggest that this figure should be between 90,000 and 100,000 new social rent homes per year. While many of these homes will be built in urban areas, there is also significant need for them in rural areas too.

Second, local authorities need to be given the power and resources to tackle the housing crisis locally. They are best placed to identify where housing is most needed and to respond to the problem of rural homelessness.

Finally, the UK Government should provide rural specific guidance and strategy on how to effectively tackle this as part of a nationwide strategy as it is a very different challenge than in urban areas.

The imperative to tackle this crisis is clear. Not only has it bore a huge individual cost; it also threatens the very future of rural communities.

Jonathan Webb is a research fellow at the IPPR think-tank.