Affordable rural housing: why it matters

This blog that follows is one of a number of essays prompted by Labour: COAST & COUNTRY’s Rural Housing programme. The full collection of essays will be published in the autumn.


What is rural England for? 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.

Ministers in the last Labour government were fond of talking about the ‘multi-functionality’ of the land, a term banned as jargon since 2010. Perhaps we can be grateful for that, but there is no escaping the fact that every acre of our land serves multiple purposes. It is not just vacant space with development potential.

Scotland now has a land use strategy and Wales is developing one. Indeed, the land question, a staple of Edwardian times, has returned to the centre of Scottish politics. In England, by contrast, land is seldom debated and there is no overarching framework to guide decisions on how it should be used.

Profound questions of how and where we should farm, build, produce energy, safeguard nature or tackle flooding – how we should plan our nation’s future – are left to around 300 local and ‘combined’ authorities, loosely guided by myriad national regulations and strategies, some of them contradictory.

The overriding aim of government policy, of course, is economic growth [or, post-Brexit, warding off recession] but this can conflict with other aims, particularly when economic growth is viewed as a short-term fix. So 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. It also underpinned the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which alongside the NHS is the greatest legacy of the Attlee government.

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. As Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson of the Town and Country Planning Association put it in Rebuilding Britain: “Our current orthodox assumption is that the sum total of individual choices in a free market … is the best humanity is capable of achieving.”

Although governments, starting with the last Labour government, 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.

When our modern planning system was first introduced, no one thought it a dangerously Socialist concept. The officials responsible for drawing up Attlee’s planning legislation were Conservatives and it quickly became part of the post-war consensus. It did not stop governments from the 1950s to the late 1970s overseeing the building of more than 250,000 houses a year every year.

But planning has come to seem more suspect to mainstream politicians of all parties since 1979. So has the idea that one of the main aims of planning policy is to defend rurality and focus growth and development in towns and cities.

This became particularly apparent in August 2015 when 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.

Some of this was rhetoric. I am not sure that either Minister really wants to encourage the better off to leave large towns and cities and make the countryside… well, make it more like large towns and cities. But that is what they suggested in their article, and there is some follow through in the Government’s current housing policies.

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’s essay in this collection makes abundantly clear, 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.

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 generally opted 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 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.



4 Responses to “Affordable rural housing: why it matters”

  1. 1 geoff lambert July 6, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Affordable housing. Its what we have now, every house we build is sold because some one can afford it. House prices keep rising because we can afford to pay even more for our homes.Why special treatment for those in the countryside. its already much cheaper to live in a town so no need to subsidize people to live out of town. But if your being serious can we have affordable housing in Chelsea, SW1 and in Windsor, we would all like to benefit.

    leave it to the market place. people have to live where they can afford to not because they happen to like a certain place.

    • 2 sspiers July 11, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      Geoff, thanks for the comment. I think we have debated this before… ‘Affordable housing’ is shorthand for housing that is affordable to those on lower incomes. In many rural areas, housing is unaffordable by anyone who is not on an above average income, which is changing the character of rural England. That should be a concern to CPRE. Personally I am also concerned by the loss of affordable housing in SW1, Windsor and elsewhere, as market rents, Council and housing association sales (and non-replacement), the bedroom tax and other policies clear poorer people out of high value areas. Mixed communities work. And the market place has never succeeded in providing decent housing for lower income people – which is why the state and local government, under both main parties, have stepped in to provide non-market housing. Are you proposing an end to housing benefit and any state involvement in housing provision?

  2. 3 Mike July 11, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Labour’s record is dismal on protecting our greenbelt as is that of the present government. Our population growth will in time mean we have little quality agricultural land left and precious little wildlife or green spaces.
    You won’t hear this on the BBC or ITV or Sky of course as nobody is allowed to question mass immigration, or the policy of basically funding people to have as many children as they want, all of it paid for by someone else.
    If the government abides by the wishes of the people we should get control of our borders back. Also, there is a serious need to actively discourage people from having big families. You used to hear about family planning but that seems to have gone out the window! When I was a child in the 70s very few people had more than two children.

    • 4 sspiers July 11, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      Mike, I think you’re too gloomy. We’ve had a big growth in population since 1926 and have been pretty good at protecting green spaces, as our opponents will tell you. The Green Belt has also been well-protected, at least until recently. We now face the prospect of at least 275,000 houses in the Green Belt proposed in local plans and a serious assault on Green Belt policy from some free market think-tanks. CPRE needs to be vigilant, but we should not despair.

      As for population, CPRE will not be adopting policies on family planning, and I am sceptical whether leaving the EU will have much impact on immigration unless we also abandon our aspirations for economic growth. Time will tell.

      Thank you, in any case, for your comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: