Idyllic images of the countryside and nostalgic ideas about village communities can present rural life as 'the dream', offering people the chance to escape the stresses of urban living and find a new sense of calm. Whole TV programmes are sold on the premise that buying a house in the countryside is the ultimate ideal. But as last week's Rural Housing Week showed, England's housing crisis is in no way confined to our city centres and for many rural residents, the pressures are just as real and require just as much attention.
Rural areas face significant housing challenges; affordability is falling, local authority owned stock is in decline, greenbelt restrictions constrain new developments, and the types and tenures of homes on offer are unable to provide the full range required to meet the needs of their residents. One-bed flats available for private rent are rare but not everyone can afford - or indeed, needs - a detached family farmhouse. As new research published by IPPR has found, these conditions mean homelessness - traditionally depicted as an urban street phenomenon and consequently overlooked elsewhere - is very much present within our rural communities.
In 2015/16, 6,270 households were accepted as homeless in England's 91 mainly and largely rural local authorities, with one-fifth of all homeless cases occurring outside of England's most urban areas. Between 2010 to 2016, predominantly rural local authorities also recorded a 42% increase in rough sleeping.
And these are just the cases of homelessness we can see. In rural areas, the wider availability of barns, outhouses, tents, and cars, alongside the greater vulnerability and stigma attached to being the only person rough sleeping in a shop doorway, can mean many homeless households simply go unrecorded. They are not visible, they are often not approaching the local authorities - and as a result, they are going unsupported.
Causes of homelessness are generally not specific to rural or urban contexts, and typically involve the ending of a private tenancy, financial hardship, and/or family breakdown. The challenges, however, to preventing and relieving homelessness in rural areas can be significantly different - meaning that for at-risk and affected households, the negative impact of homelessness is no less significant than when experienced by an urban household. It might be even more so. Poor economies of scale, large travel distances and limited public transport connections, constrained resourcing for specialist services, particular difficulties in monitoring and reporting, isolated and dispersed communities, and a relative absence of emergency hostels and temporary accommodation, make early interventions and relief efforts incredibly difficult to deliver in a rural area.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 seeks to address concerns about rising homelessness but successful implementation of the legislation requires a clear understanding of the nature of housing, homelessness, and related services in any given area. Building on previous recommendations, IPPR encourages local and combined authorities to take up the government's white paper offer to enter into two-way negotiations to develop bespoke housing and planning devolution deals which will transfer relevant powers to increase affordable housing supply of the type and tenures needed.
For those rural areas who find their housing markets facing significant pressures associated with holiday and second homes, they should aim to negotiate specific devolution powers over council tax including more flexibility on empty home premiums, which can be used to finance dedicated temporary accommodation and homelessness services.
In response to the new legislation, the government must also make developing a new homelessness strategy a priority, to reflect the changes being brought in. Within this, due attention should be given to issues of rurality. This must include guidance and best practice examples on how strategies can be adapted to be relevant for rural areas, and should consider new models of funding which are not calculated simply on numerical assessments but on the costs involved in supporting households given the characteristics of the area in which they are resident.
Despite the evident challenges - and ongoing cuts to local authority budgets - rural authorities, public sector bodies, and community organisations nevertheless have a responsibility to explore a range of potential interventions. IPPR's research has identified various examples of successful activities, and recommends rural areas consider: rural homelessness forums to facilitate partnership working and information sharing; community hubs to consolidate service delivery and improve accessibility; and more standardised monitoring and recording of homelessness to gain a clearer picture of the problem.
Homelessness is not unique to urban areas, nor is affordable housing supply something which only urban communities need. If we are to tackle England's housing crisis and reduce the number of households becoming and remaining homeless, we need to move away from viewing homelessness as a solely urban phenomenon and give rural areas the attention and support that they need.