Shortly before Christmas the Government declared its commitment to ‘rural proof’ all its policies.
The Housing Bill: bad for villages
Rural issues, we were told, would be ‘a core policy consideration’ for all departments. New mechanisms would ‘ensure the needs of the countryside are heard loud and clear across government’.
That was good to hear. But the Government’s housing policies, which look set to alter forever the fabric of rural life, have clearly not been rural proofed in any way.
I am not talking here about new housing estates plonked down on the edge of towns – though there are plenty of those planned, and in many places the countryside is being turned into the town. What I have in mind is the impact of housing policy on the social mix of villages and small market towns.
Housing association tenants are being given the right to buy their properties. At the same time, public subsidy is shifting from social homes for rent, affordable in perpetuity, to discounted ‘starter homes’ for first-time buyers that can be sold on the open market at full price after five years. These policies are controversial everywhere, but there is a vitally important rural angle that the Government appears unwilling even to consider.
Housing in the countryside is different. Rural areas have proportionally less affordable housing than urban areas (only 8% of homes in rural areas are classified as affordable, compared with 20% of urban housing) and many villages suffer from the sale and non-replacement of council houses. House prices are higher in rural areas and wages lower. In the West Midlands, where the gap is greatest, the average rural home cost £244,000 in 2013-14 compared with £155,000 for an urban home. By contrast, rural wages across the country are £5,000 a year lower and the gap is growing.
For many rural people, housing association properties offer the only hope of living locally – and once these homes are sold they will be very hard to replace: it takes longer and costs more to build social housing in villages than in cities and large towns.
But the Government simply refuses to discuss the rural aspects of the right to buy. Its policy includes some rural exclusions, but these are vague and limited to around a fifth of rural settlements. It says the policy does not need to be ‘rural proofed’ as it arises from a voluntary agreement with the National Housing Federation (NHF), the housing association trade association.
When the bill was debated in the House of Lords (see parliament.uk, from column 1174) peers generally made it clear they felt the bill would cause harm, particularly in rural England.
And as well as the right to buy housing association properties, several peers spoke against the forced sale and non-replacement of council houses to pay for the right-to-buy, another blow to the provision of affordable housing in our villages.
Last week, the Communities and Local Government select committee chimed in, releasing its second report of evidence on housing associations and the right to buy (10 February). It noted in its criticism of right to buy that four in 10 properties sold are now rented out; and was specifically concerned about the policy’s impact on rural areas. Leaving aside the fact that the Government’s shotgun deal with the National Housing Federation was hardly voluntary (‘agree to it or else’) I do not accept that something of such profound national importance as the future of social housing should be allowed to bypass proper public and Parliamentary scrutiny.
A social mix has always been important to English rural life. It is part of how we think of villages. Rural house prices are high, but there are generally at least a few local authority or housing association homes available for local people or lower paid people working locally. If these changes go ahead, most English villages will become unaffordable to anyone on an average or below average rural wage.
Is this really the Government’s intention? It is hard to tell. One senior Tory told me that no one has a right to live in a village any more than someone brought up in Mayfair has a right to live there. Someone may have grown up in a village and work in it, but if they cannot afford to buy a house in it, they should move to the nearest affordable town. That is at least honest. But it is not what the Government says it intends.
What we do know is that the overriding government priority is to deliver its manifesto commitment to build more houses and increase home ownership. Delivering manifesto commitments is generally admirable, but the Government needs to broaden its strategy to increase supply of both market homes and affordable homes for rent if it is to meet the country’s housing needs – and in particular the needs of rural England.
If home ownership and house building are to trump all other considerations, the implications for rural England will be profound: sprawling villages whose new homes are out of reach to local people, while the few existing social homes are gradually sold off for second homes, holiday lets and wealthy incomers. Again, is that really the intention? It certainly looks set to be the outcome, unless the Government thinks again.
A version of this blog originally appeared in 27 January’s Country Life.
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