The Housing Bill: bad for villages

Here is an article on rural affordable housing that appears in this week’s Country Life.

Shortly before Christmas the Government declared its commitment to ‘rural proof’ all its policies. 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 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. For the same reason, it wants to prevent peers from amending the Housing and Planning Bill when it reaches the House of Lords on 26 January to achieve what is really needed: a full rural exemption from the right to buy.

Leaving aside the fact that the Government’s shotgun deal with the NHF 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. Implementing an election manifesto is generally a good thing. But if home ownership and house building are to trump everything else, 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.

AFTERWORD: the House of Lords debate on the bill (see here, from column 1174) was fascinating. Although peers from all sides praised aspects of the Bill – and CPRE strongly supports parts of it, notably on neighbourhood planning and the new brownfield register – the general view was that it would cause harm, particularly in rural England.

My Country Life article focussed on the right to buy housing association properties, and several peers spoke against this or called for a rural exemption. But I should have said more about the forced sale and non-replacement of council houses to pay for the right-to-buy. Among the peers speaking against these proposals and highlighting the damage they will do to rural communities (it is not an exclusive list) were Baroness Royall (column 1198), the Bishop of St. Albans (column 1206), Lord Cameron (1212), Lord Best (column 1233) and Lord Teverson (column 1242). A good summary of the debate, from Jules Birch at Inside Housing, is available here and here.

The Conservative Chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter (leader of South Holland district council) has also spoken out.

I do not think all these people can be mistaken. Will the Government listen?

3 Responses to “The Housing Bill: bad for villages”

  1. 1 Anne February 5, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    I teally doubt they will listen. It’s very clear that along with the ‘cleansing genocide’ that the Tories are perpetrating on the sick, poor and disabled, they also want to create exclusive areas solely for the wealthy by excluding those who may have been born and brought up in an area. Not content with the destruction of the extended family they want to marginalise and isolate the less well off. London itself is gradually becoming a no go area for people who can only afford social housing and cannot afford hight house prices and extortionate rents.

    The Toroes want us back in Victorian times and the majority of the population are sleep walking right into it.

  2. 2 Stamford Marthews February 27, 2016 at 8:31 am


    Since Margaret Thatcher introduced right to buy, a much wider range of people have been able to protect their retirement and their families by acquiring an asset. Previously something only available to the rich and successful. That is the root of the policy’s popularity..

    However, at the same time aspirations have been raised, It is now considered demeaning to rent a house or a cottage. Many who rent feel they are being exploited. Why is that? One reason is the poor quality of rentable housing in many areas. Standards in rented housing are far too low.

    Some years ago Wandsworth London Borough Council introduced the Landlords charter which sought to ensure good quality safe rented properties in partnership with landlords. The landlords were assured that if they met the council’s standards, their rents would be protected from voids, and their properties from trashing. They would be helped to deal with anti-social behaviour.

    Instead of complaining about the undue emphasis on building in the country side CPRE should look at the availability of good quality rental property and consider how to encourage further and better provision. Then local people can live in their villages without a crippling mortgage.

    Does CPRE believe that renting is exploitation?

    • 3 sspiers February 27, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Stamford, we don’t believe that ‘renting is exploitation’, though there is undoubtedly too much exploitation in the rented sector, and ‘market rents’ are often higher than mortgage repayments.

      The particular problem in many, probably most villages is that market housing, whether rental or owner-occupied, is well beyond the reach of local people on low or even average wages.

      That is why we are promoting social housing, affordable in perpetuity, in villages, provided, of course, that it is in appropriate locations, democratically agreed etc. The housing bill will lead to the sale of existing social housing and choke off future supply by making it less likely that landlords will make available rural exception sites – a double whammy.

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