Rolling hills, fresh pastures and winding lanes, for many, England’s rural towns and villages still evoke an idealised vision of the English countryside. Yet these stereotypes mask the reality that not only are rural areas much more vibrant and dynamic than many imagine, but they also suffer great deprivation and poverty too.
The rural economy is not just made up of ‘tractors and tourism’ but also the digital, hi-tech and manufacturing sectors, which have an increasingly important presence. Yet fuel poverty is far more prevalent in rural areas compared to urban areas and, as our latest report finds, housing is less affordable for local people.
The average rural house price is more than £87,000 higher than the urban average excluding London. There is also comparatively less affordable housing in rural areas at 8% of total stock compared 20% in urban areas. Current delivery of new affordable homes is also falling well short of what is needed.
The consequences of high housing costs reach far beyond just the housing market. They can be a cause of poverty and deprivation, and at the most extreme, homelessness and rough sleeping. These impacts are true of all areas but there are particular consequences for rural communities and rural life.
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. Our analysis has found that by 2038, there will be 63 people aged over 65 for every 100 working aged people in rural areas, 24 more than in 2014 and more than twice the average in urban areas. An ongoing shortage of affordable homes could make this situation even worse.
Many rural communities want to do something about this, but lack the tools to do so. Polling shows that a majority of those in rural areas welcome new affordable homes (65%). The high cost of housing in these areas stems from a set of unique characteristics that shape rural housing markets.
However, national policy frequently fails to pick up on these factors, creating unintended consequences for rural communities. Recent government policies such as Entry-Level Exception Sites, pieces of land brought forward outside the normal planning system to deliver ‘affordable’ housing, have the potential to undermine the delivery of affordable homes in villages still further. The Labour party’s recent housing green paper also makes scant reference to the issues which affect rural areas most.
With housing policy now near the top of the political agenda, and reviews on social and affordable housing being undertaken by both major political parties, there is an opportunity to make the case for a tailored approach to delivering the affordable homes that rural communities need.
We propose a new deal for rural communities on affordable housing which would allow our villages and hamlets not just to survive, but thrive. Central to this new plan are devolution deals for rural areas which would include ambitious commitments to increase affordable housing supply in return for additional resources for housing and infrastructure.
Second, the government should undertake a rural community house building programme. This should involve the introduction of a rural affordable housing target and a specific rural housing grant, administered by Homes England, which should reflect the higher costs of developing in rural areas.
Third, the land needs to be brought forward where it is needed at a price that means it can be developed for affordable housing. This means local authorities setting ‘upfront’ targets in their local plans for affordable housing in their local areas and national government should reform planning policy to explicitly exempt rural areas from changes to the section 106 requirements (which no longer require affordable housing commitments on sites of less than 10 units). It must also include reform of the viability process in the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure that rural areas are not missing out on a supply of affordable housing.
Lastly, the needs of rural communities must be put at the heart of government. To achieve this, the government must commit to ‘rural proof’ all policy, setting out a clear framework for how this will be achieved and establish a central rural policy unit, housed in the Cabinet Office, which focuses on promoting rural communities.
With these measures rural areas would be able to build the homes that they need and ensure that the English countryside, and their communities, are able to flourish.
Luke Murphy is Associate Director for the Energy, Climate, Housing and Infrastructure Team at IPPR. He tweets @LukeSMurphy. Luke is co-author of the new report A new rural settlement: Fixing the affordable housing crisis in rural England