If progressives are to tackle poverty and inequality they need to look beyond the rural idyll | IPPR

All too often when policy makers consider the countryside they think of chocolate box images of the rural idyll. These assumptions, however, mask a nuanced reality in which rural areas are much more vibrant and dynamic than many imagine but also suffer far greater deprivation and poverty too.

No more is this the case than in respect to the rural housing market. New research from the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that the average rural house price at £320,700 is more than £87,000 higher than the urban average excluding London (£233,600). This is similarly the case in respect to rented homes, with rural dwellers spending a significantly larger portion of their incomes than their urban counterparts on rent.

Despite this, only 8 per cent of the housing stock in rural areas is affordable compared to 20 per cent in urban areas, and current delivery is failing to provide enough new affordable homes. In settlements of less than 3,000 people, a definition of a rural community which is commonly accepted, 4,079 affordable homes (of all types) were built in 2016/17. This falls far short of the 7,500 affordable homes that the Affordable Rural Housing Commission estimated were needed to meet need.

High housing costs can have a significant impact on rural communities. A recent report by IPPR found that between 2010 and 2016, there was an increase in rough sleeping of 56 per cent in largely rural areas, and a key driver of this increase was poor access to affordable homes.

In addition to impacting on individuals, unaffordable housing poses a significant threat to the nature of rural life itself. In the absence of sufficient affordable and long-term accommodation, young, economically active people will continue to move away from rural communities, essential services will close, and some villages risk terminal decline.

Yet, rural communities have at best been ignored in housing policy and at worst, governments have made things worse. For example, as our report finds, the failure of successive governments to understand the particularities of the rural land market and to effectively rural proof policy has led to a range of policy changes which will negatively harm the delivery of affordable homes in rural areas. The most recent example of this is the government’s policy of Entry Level Exception Sites which risks undermining the rural exception site policy which has been one of the most successful vehicles for delivering affordable homes.

Moreover, the Labour Party’s recent affordable housing green paper, laudable in its ambition to tackle the drastic undersupply of affordable housing, makes only scant reference to rural communities.

Tackling the rural housing crisis needs a number of interventions, not least increased funding for new affordable homes. This is why we have called for Homes England to be tasked with the responsibility for a significant rural house building programme, equipped with a rural affordable housing target and a specific rural housing grant, which should reflect the higher costs of developing in rural areas.

But more than this we need a shift in the way that rural communities are viewed and we need to guarantee that their voices are heard in policy making. This will require institutional change. It is for this reason that our report has called for a new deal for rural communities, which better embeds an understanding of the dynamics of the countryside in government. To achieve this, we have made two key recommendations.

Firstly, devolution has the capacity to play a key role in increasing the supply of affordable housing. However, to date it has almost exclusively focussed on urban areas. Rural communities should unlock the potential of regional governance by entering into new devolution deals, negotiating additional resources for housing and infrastructure in order to boost supply, alongside securing additional powers to make sure they can develop policy which is appropriate to the rural context.

Secondly, government should establish a central rural policy unit which focuses on promoting rural communities. This unit should work across government with representatives from Defra and MHCLG but should ultimately be a part of the Cabinet Office. It should be tasked with monitoring and rural proofing policy and in doing so engaging with rural stakeholders, bringing them into the policy making process.

A key part of its initial role should be to should be to develop and award a statutory definition of a rural community, so that policy can be differentiated between urban and rural areas.

Our report shows that the rural housing crisis can be solved. However, doing so will require politicians and policy makers to move beyond a simplified view of rural life and to challenge the assumption that socio-economic problems, including a chronic shortage of affordable homes, are solely an urban phenomenon.

Luke Murphy is Associate Director for Energy, Climate, Housing and Infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Darren Baxter is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

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Sustainable Villages: Rural Housing for the Future

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.

A Good Experience

The local political scene in St Albans is competitive, with a District Council hanging on to a thin Tory majority, and the minority split between Labour and the Lib Dems. We also have two Green Councillors, and UKIP are fielding a candidate in every Ward. There is everything to play for as we move into the General and District Council elections.

Before moving here in mid-2013 with my young family, I’d been involved in Labour party politics for a number of years, working on the SERA Exec, and as an active member in Hackney Central. I found that in Hackney, being a Labour-dominated Borough meant that there were very few chances to run for Council seats. Incumbents were keen to stay in place, and nominations were ultra-competitive.

In St Albans it was a different story. I took on leafleting duties and joining in canvassing, and then applied to run as a candidate for the 2015 elections.

After two rounds of selection panels I was chosen to run in the town centre ward, which I was really thrilled about. It’s going to be a tight decision between all the parties. The incumbent is a Green, and I think a total vote of around 700 will be enough to win.

I’ve found the locals in St Albans to be engaged politically and happy enough to chat on the doorstep. The main local issues seem to be transport (rail, buses, car parking), local development and affordable housing (St Alban’s is very expensive) .

The biggest challenge is engaging volunteers and activists, although this is picking up the closer we get to the 7 May. We could do more with our local website to tell volunteers how they can get involved. We are working on all this and hopefully will get a good result in the election. All in all its been a great experience, and win or lose I’ve enjoyed the experience of being a candidate and learned a huge amount.

Alex Veitch is Labour Candidate for St Peter’s Ward, St Albans, and a former SERA Executive Committee member

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.