Having lived for much of my life in the Forest of Dean, a glorious forest and a group of small communities between the Severn and the Wye, I’m all too aware of the problems, and in some cases the opportunities, that present themselves on the issue of rural housing.
As in most rural areas, we need quality affordable housing, especially social housing, so that those who grow up in the area can stay if they wish to, helping our communities to flourish. In debates on the recent Housing Act it was all too clear that the needs of rural areas were not properly understood or going to be addressed. Rural areas are not just a smaller version of urban communities; they have different strengths and different challenges.
The current system is creaking, if not failing to serve rural communities. Most experts and many Peers feel the Act will only make things worse, neither delivering more homes, nor homes that people can afford or want to have as part of their communities. We need homes for people who live and work in our villages and small towns, who contribute to their daily life and well-being. The failure to provide these homes is fueling many of the challenges faced in rural areas with aging populations, the closure of schools, post offices, pubs and other hubs of village life.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Real localism should mean that local communities are part of the decision making and development process. Indeed when new housing and the future of a village, hamlet or town are considered with the community then often there is scope to develop a workable and consented plan or site development as local people can take ownership, metaphorically and often practically. With involvement and consent come houses that actually respond to local needs and fit the local setting – people and places aren’t and don’t have to be put upon.
All over the country we can see good practice that should be followed as a matter of course. I will highlight one example, a small village based development proposed by a local farmer in Eakring (in Newark & Sherwood). The development is being explored with the local community in a pre-application exhibition. That gives details of the farmer landowner, the local builder and local architect while setting out a subtle, sensitive development designed to sit low in the landscape, built to high sustainability and habitat standards in response to local need. It highlights the previous use of the site, having been used for farm worker accommodation up until the 1940s.
There are many other instances of a local landowner wanting to contribute to the success of a thriving village, in partnership with the community of the village.
The round table discussion that prompted this collection of essays highlighted some of the failings, and thankfully more of the solutions that could sustainably revive rural housing across the country. I commend them to you, as a package of ideas, examples and observations from participants across the rural housing ‘system’ – a builder, a councillor, a rural housing enabler, to a rural campaigner – with views encompassing east, west, north and south.
Together they help identify a route forward – that takes a long term view, that supports homes to rent as much as homes to own, that values engaging and involving existing communities in their development, that grows community led and based building, that locks in long term ownership, that values rural exemption sites, and taken together have the potential to help ensure sustainable villages to come – where communities would welcome new homes and there is the prospect of more homes not less.
Most people would assume that the Conservatives are the champions of rural communities, but I am proud of the crucial role that my Party has played and will continue to play. Housing is critical to the wellbeing of a community, to families and individuals – homes are not merely bricks and mortar, they provide people with security and dignity. Labour has always been the party to take housing need seriously.
I look forward to working with many others to ensure that those needs will be addressed following the passing of this Act; working with all the people and organisations that have contributed to this pamphlet, with landowners including perhaps the colleges of Oxbridge, and with other Peers, not least Lords Best and Cameron, to ensure a Labour led rural housing revolution and a Rural Housing Bill that really is fit for rural purpose.
Jan Royall – The Rt Hon., the Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Labour Peer
This blog is one of a number of essays prompted by Labour: COAST & COUNTRY’s Rural Housing programme; the full collection of essays will be published in the autumn.