Campaign to Protect Rural England Standing up for your countryside

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We cannot afford to go on like this

We cannot afford to go on like this

Take a walk in the countryside on a warm summer’s day and you’ll see some familiar sights: cows lazing in the sun, green hills and valleys, lanes bordered by bustling hedgerows. But you’re also increasingly likely to come across vacant Post Offices, boarded-up pubs and crumbling village halls. These are all-too-common reminders of the challenges faced by rural communities, and a symptom of the housing crisis gripping England’s countryside.

Just 8% of all rural housing is classed as affordable, compared to 20% in urban areas. As a result, the average age in rural communities is rising as young people and families are priced out, and rural businesses are struggling as customers and potential employees are forced to move elsewhere. There’s an urgent need for more affordable housing to turn this trend around.

We’ve previously worked on ways to encourage landowners to build affordable housing on small rural sites. This can help tackle the problem as part of a wider approach that prioritises genuinely affordable housing in rural areas. But most new affordable housing is provided as part of large commercial housebuilding schemes, as a condition of the developers being granted planning permission. This makes the findings of our new research all the more concerning: developers are routinely failing to provide the levels of affordable housing they’ve promised.

There’s a familiar pattern: once a scheme is underway, the developer will claim that it is no longer financially viable to provide the previously agreed proportion of affordable homes. In Horsham, West Sussex, an American real estate investment trust recently told the council that it couldn’t provide more than half of the council’s 35% affordable housing target. Faced with the prospect of the development being withdrawn altogether, the council accepted the developer’s assessment and allowed the 2,750-home and business park development with just 18% affordable housing.

A recent survey showed that over 60% of councils think this kind of viability claim has made it more difficult to secure sufficient social and affordable housing. This is reflected in the national statistics: Government data shows that the proportion of affordable homes being provided in non-metropolitan local authorities has halved in five years. In 2011-12, 35% of new houses in these areas were affordable, but by 2015-16, this had decreased to just 16%. Other than a small recovery in 2014-15, there has been a continuous decline.

The Government data also shows which councils have provided the lowest proportions of affordable housing. Over the past five years, an average of just 6% of the new housing in Oadby & Wigston, a district on the edge of Leicester, has been affordable. It is particularly noticeable – and ironic – that some of the worst performance is in a cluster of districts in eastern Dorset. Poole Council, within whose boundaries lies some of the most expensive real estate in Europe at Sandbanks, aims for 40% affordable housing. But just 7.7% of completed homes in Poole since 2011 have fulfilled the criteria.

Lurking in the background is the question of whether even the tiny amount of affordable housing that is provided is meeting peoples’ needs. Only a small minority of new ‘affordable’ homes provided are for social rent, with charges linked to local people’s ability to pay. Most new ‘affordable homes’ provided in connection with market developments are either shared ownership, low-cost market housing or accommodation rented at ‘affordable rent’ levels, which can be up to 80% of local market rents. Yet market rents and house prices in rural areas are higher or equal to the national average, while average rural salaries trail the national average by a significant margin. Once again, those living in rural communities are put at a disadvantage.

CPRE firmly believes that a large part of the solution is to get local councils to build more – a position supported by many others in the housing sector. We’re calling on the new Government to increase the level of direct funding for affordable housing, and to give more freedom to local authorities to increase the number of homes they build from the current level of just 1,890 across the entire country in 2015-16.

If the new Government takes action, the next commonplace sight in the countryside could be thriving communities boosted by new affordable homes.

Developers are routinely failing to provide the levels of affordable housing they’ve promised.

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