What is rural England for?
Affordable rural housing: why it matters
There is no clear answer to that, certainly no government policy, and I guess many people will think it a stupid question. But it is hard to plan for the future of the countryside if we do not know what we want from it.
Most of England’s land is rural. It has economic importance – we farm and quarry it, use it to produce energy, value it for recreation and tourism. Land is also an environmental asset, providing a place for nature and helping us adapt to climate change. Finally, many people live in the countryside and many more would like to.
There is no escaping the fact that every acre of our land serves multiple purposes. It is not just vacant space with development potential. In England there is no overarching framework to guide decisions on how it should be used.
England needs a national debate on what we want from our land, and a land use strategy to guide decision-makers when goals conflict. A debate on land use would include revisiting whether we still want a physical distinction between town and country. The idea that it should be clear when one leaves the one and enters the other was one of the things that brought CPRE into existence in 1926.
The sense that the town is different from the country survives partly because it taps into a deep part of our national psyche, and the policies that underpin this distinction have helped make our towns and cities much better places to live in than they were 30 years ago. Most people choose urban living, close to jobs and amenities, because it suits them. That applies to people (like me) who love getting out into the countryside when they can. Others, of course, prefer to live in the countryside.
But the clear physical distinction between town and country, something that has been lost in other countries, is also down to the town and country planning system. And the whole concept of planning is now deeply unfashionable.
Although governments have wanted to make the planning system more responsive to “market signals”, planning plays an important part in managing the market. The urban revival is largely the result of planning policies, particularly brownfield-first policies, first introduced in the early 1990s. These focussed investment and development on urban areas by making greenfield development the option of last resort, in defiance of market preferences.
In August 2015 the Government launched its Rural Productivity Plan. In an article in the Daily Telegraph headlined “With our plan, the countryside can become Britain’s engine of growth”, the Chancellor and Environment Secretary (George Osborne and Liz Truss) welcomed “the flight from city to country” of some 60,000 people a year, and set out proposals to encourage more people to move to the countryside.
In line with its manifesto promises, the Government is committed to building more homes and increasing home ownership. All other considerations concerning the quality or location of buildings come far behind, as does social housing.
In the absence of any serious public house-building programme, and given the collapse of the small building sector, new houses will have to be built mainly by the big builders. And they, of course, generally prefer to build on greenfield sites around existing settlements than on brownfield sites within them.
This means more big estates plonked down in countryside on the edge of towns and cities, and more pressure for market housing in and around villages. But as Sue Chalkey has pointed out, the need for housing in rural areas is overwhelmingly for permanently affordable housing for people working locally or with strong local connections. There is almost limitless demand for housing in many rural areas, but the planning system exists to advance the wider public interest, not individual consumer demand.
Who will live in these new homes?
Villages can and generally should grow. Organic growth is generally supported by local people. Village neighbourhood plans agreed in the last couple of years have tended to opt for higher housing figures than were required in the local plan.
But it is a mistake to focus only on housing numbers. It matters who lives in the new homes and it would clearly be a problem if new rural houses were all bought by investors or as second homes. I think it would also be a problem if they are bought by wealthy people of a certain age moving out of cities.
But who else could afford market houses in many English villages?
All communities need a mix of ages and incomes. Nye Bevan’s aspiration is still a good one: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of citizen… to see the living tapestry of a mixed community.”
This living tapestry is becoming harder and harder to achieve in villages across England, as planning is weakened and policy outcomes are left to the market. Housing policy should be “rural proofed” to deliver what the countryside really needs: more high-quality housing that is affordable – genuinely affordable – in perpetuity.