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An urgent need for affordable housing in the countryside

An urgent need for affordable housing in the countryside

Too often, the housing crisis is portrayed as an exclusively urban issue. Rural poverty remains largely unacknowledged, even though low wages and high living costs mean there are pockets of real deprivation in the countryside. The fact that house prices are more than eight times higher than average incomes in over 80% of rural local authorities, or that a single person on a median rural wage can expect to spend 46% of their income on rent, gets lost in the focus on cities.

Across much of rural England, communities are being quietly eroded by an acute lack of low cost rented homes. An analysis by the National Housing Federation last year found that 52 rural schools in England had closed since 2011, along with 81 rural post offices and over 1,300 pubs.

Affordable homes can help secure the future of our rural communities. Just a handful of new properties can make the difference between a primary school being forced to close and one which goes on welcoming new pupils; a village shop shuttered up and one which continues to serve customers; a pub converted into holiday cottages and one which remains a hub for the local community.

As rural housing practitioners have long highlighted, there are a number of key barriers to the delivery of affordable homes in rural areas. These include inflated land values, difficulties finding appropriate sites, the abandonment of a specific rural target for grant funding, and the Government’s decision to define ‘affordable rent’ as up to 80% of market rates, a level which is simply not affordable for many low-paid rural workers.

These are the real barriers. Not the democratic planning process, nor Green Belt protection. As the Local Government Association recently highlighted, councils and their communities granted nearly twice as many planning permissions as the number of new homes that were completed in the financial year 2016/17, approving more than 321,000 new homes, of which only 183,000 were built. But perhaps the most fundamental problem is that the realities of rural life are not well understood, in Westminster or by the general public.

If we want to solve the rural housing crisis, we must work to change perceptions of rural areas. We must help to build a better public understanding of what life in the countryside is really like, and inspire empathy with the struggles of those who live there. And we must embed rural issues more firmly within the wider housing debate, so that whenever politicians, charities and think tanks talk about the need for more truly affordable homes, they recognise that rural communities need them too.

We need stronger measures to reconnect rural rents and incomes, encourage land to come forward more cheaply, and promote better rural-proofing of policy. In an age of declining faith in Government, developers and the planning system to deliver the right homes in the right places, it is vital that communities are empowered to push for the kind of development they want and need.

CPRE believe that it is possible to build the homes that people need and preserve the green spaces they benefit from. We must protect the countryside and enhance it, by promoting the right kind of development in the places where it is needed most. Only by pursuing both these aims will we ensure that our villages and market towns remain vibrant and thriving places for future generations to live and work.

This week is Rural Housing Week, a week dedicated to rural housing issues. I hope that this shines a spotlight the threats that rural communities are facing due to a lack of affordable housing, but also gives us a platform to showcase successful developments that offer a lifeline to local people in our market towns and villages, and to reinforce the message that housing is vital for the survival of rural communities and services.

First published in the Daily Express

CPRE believe that it is possible to build the homes that people need and preserve the green spaces they benefit from.

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