Jennifer Dunn: Local answer to countryside housing crisis

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IN the last decade, the population of rural Britain has grown by 800,000 people; twice the rate of urban areas.

The result has been to drive up house prices so that the average price of a house in rural areas is 5.4 times the UK average annual earnings in the countryside.

This sharp rise is pricing young families out of the communities in which they work and have often been brought up. Those people unable to find homes in the countryside often move to urban areas, placing a further strain on affordable housing in these areas. Mass migration of younger people from the countryside to the city is detrimental to the economic prosperity and vitality of rural Britain.

The Countryside Alliance passionately argues that a thriving and vibrant countryside will benefit the whole nation and without homes and jobs there is no community to support local shops, schools and services.

The issue of a lack of affordable housing has always been a concern. In our Rural Manifesto published in May 2009, we championed rural housing as a priority for any incoming government. Affordable housing must be provided to ensure the future of rural communities, and based on sensitive, locally inspired and locally supported solutions.

The Government appears to be paying attention. In the draft National Planning Policy Framework released last month, it stated that “in rural areas, local planning authorities should be responsive to local circumstances… particularly for affordable housing”.

So far so good, but the affordable housing situation is desperate.

Countryside Alliance research has revealed that there is a huge gap between the number of affordable homes identified as needed and the number of affordable homes actually being delivered. Indeed for rural and semi-rural councils in England, on average, only 29 per cent of the identified need for new affordable housing was planned to be built in 2010/11.

The Yorkshire and Humber area was unfortunately no exception to the national trend. On average, councils here identified that 686 affordable houses were needed annually.

However, the local authorities only planned to deliver 230 houses in 2010-2011. There was therefore a 60 per cent shortfall in affordable housing and only 40 per cent of identified need for affordable housing was planned to be delivered.

The huge shortfall of the provision of affordable housing will only be overcome by a fundamental shake up of planning and affordable housing policy.

This will ensure that the planning system does not create a situation in which local planning authorities’ affordable housing targets are not achievable or desirable, but allows local planning authorities to deliver the amount of housing that is needed for local communities.

Central Government must play a role and ensure that the provision of affordable housing in rural communities receives an equitable share of public funding.

The Affordable Rural Housing Commission Final Report noted back in 2006: “To meet the scale of the need in rural communities in all regions, the issue must be addressed in its own right, and with urgency, rather than only after urban needs have been met.”

Incentives must be provided for landowners to offer land for affordable housing at affordable prices. This should include options such as allowing landowners to offer a newly built affordable property to a family member or employee, providing it helps bring forward more affordable homes needed for the community. Incentives for landowners were consulted on under the previous Government, but the current Government has yet to respond.

Community-led affordable housing initiatives for smaller rural communities are crucial. Initiatives led locally can develop small clusters of affordable housing for local people to rent or buy, and ensure affordable housing for the next generation of rural dwellers.

By involving local people, these affordable housing developments will be met with local support and will be in keeping with the style of the area in which it is built.

Local community involvement cannot be overstated. Lack of community involvement has, in some cases, distorted the number of affordable houses estimated to be needed in particular communities. Councils who have commented on our report have stated that they have come up against massive local opposition against the number of developments and have consequently not pressed ahead with the planned number of developments.

“Localism, localism localism” is the mantra most frequently used by politicians who populate the Westminster village, but local solutions to affordable housing problems should not be dismissed as jargon.

Nowhere are local people more important than in the shaping of the communities in which they live. Indeed any solution to the massive shortfall in affordable housing must lie very close to home.

Jennifer Dunn is a policy researcher for the Countryside Alliance.