IN this election, debate on rural housing is conspicuous by its absence. A staple of elections past, our politicians have said little on that most fundamental of questions. Where is everyone going to live?
The question becomes more pressing with each passing year. The UK’s population has risen by nine million people since the turn of the century – more than the population of Scotland and Wales combined. By 2030, we will add a further two million.
So it should come as no surprise that building enough houses is proving a monstrous task. Government has set itself a target of building 300,000 homes a year, although it has never once come close to achieving it – last year falling 100,000 short.
It makes it all the more maddening therefore that the Government is ignoring the pleas of the nation’s landowners, who so often are seeing their planning applications rejected.
There is a common charge made against rural communities that people simply don’t want new homes being built ‘in their backyard’. Whilst of course such views exist, the reality is that many villages are increasingly crying out for new builds.
Just nine per cent of homes in rural areas are affordable, often forcing talented young people away from rural communities leaving local amenities like pubs, shops, schools and churches vulnerable to closure. Without new affordable housing, thousands of villages will die.
Yet, as the President of the Country Land and Business Association, everywhere I go I meet landowners who want to build homes to keep their communities strong and provide quality – often affordable and eco-friendly – housing for local people.
They spend tens of thousands of pounds on planning applications, but extensive delays and constant knock backs from local authorities means they give up, much to the detriment of the local and national economy.
Local authorities cannot take more than a percentage of the blame. Councils have had their planning budgets cut by 55 per cent since 2010, leaving planning departments in crisis. With such drastic cuts we are left with too few planning officers, and those who are in post have a colossal workload.
It means houses not being built, rural communities not being supported and the immense potential of the rural economy not being realised. It is absurd in the extreme.
So something has to change. Rather than representing a barrier to growth, the planning system should enable and enhance the delivery of rural housing.
The Government must decide what it wants the planning system to deliver and then provide adequate resources to achieve those aims. A simpler and better resourced planning system would restore confidence in decisions and encourage more applications to come forward.
Local planning authorities should give parish and community councils more responsibility to work with landowners to identify local housing needs, with particular attention given to affordable housing and housing for the elderly.
It will ease some of the burden on local authorities and give local people more power to improve the sustainability of their villages.
Government should allow also new build, affordable housing to be built under permitted Development Rights. This would allow landowners to deliver critically-needed affordable homes that meet high regulatory standards, whilst limiting exposure to costly delays and endless bureaucracy. Again, it reduces the strain on planning officers whilst maintaining the high standards people rightly expect.
The Country Land and Business Association is campaigning for significant improvements in the planning system as part of its Rural Powerhouse campaign.
The campaign highlights how the rural economy could grow by as much as £43bn with the right policies, and ensuring the availability of quality housing of all types and tenures is a fundamental principle in attracting talent to the countryside.
If we are to encourage people with skills and talent to remain or move to the countryside, then we need to be able to build environmentally sustainable yet affordable homes that people want to live in.
The message should ring loud and clear through Whitehall and every council in the country. Landowners are offering to help ease the housing crisis – all they need is a government who will let them.
Mark Bridgeman is President of the Country Land and Business Association.