Memorandum by the Commission for Rural
Communities (CRC) (AH 95)
1. The Commission for Rural Communities
was established as a division of the Countryside Agency in April
2005 to provide well-informed, independent advice to government
and ensure that policies reflect the real needs of people living
and working in rural England, with a particular focus on disadvantage.
2. The lack of affordable housing in rural
communities is a major issue affecting the well-being of most
rural areas. The CRC has wide knowledge and experience of the
nature and scale of the issue as well as possible solutions. It
is currently undertaking an inquiry into rural housing to hear
the views of rural people and communities which will form part
of its evidence to the Government`s Affordable Rural Housing Commission
which is due to report in March 2006.
3. For many years, attention has focussed
on the lack of publicly subsidised affordable housing in rural
areas. This has been cause by the loss of much council housing
through the Right-to-Buy, with over 330,000 sales in rural local
authority areas since 1979; the limited funding available for
new social housing, exacerbated by the abolition of Local Authority
Social Housing Grant in 2000; the limited opportunities for applying
affordable housing quotas to private developments; the difficulties
and costs of building small schemes in more remote locations;
and the opposition from local "nimbys". Each and all
of these factors have caused particular problems for those on
low incomes in rural areas. Overall in rural areas public sector
housing continues to comprise a smaller proportion of overall
housing stock when compared to urban areas: 13.4% compared to
22.4 % (State of the Countryside; CRC 2004).
4. These problems of providing affordable
housing in rural areas have been well rehearsed (1 and 2). Less
attention has been paid to the problems of home ownership in rural
areas and the role it might play. Access to open market housing
in rural areas is often difficult for many rural people. As an
illustration the State of the Countryside Report 2005 shows that
the affordability index in less sparse hamlets and isolated dwellings
is 6.9 compared to the equivalent urban figure of 4.6. In terms
of the costs of home ownership, based on standard lending terms,
36% of rural households would have to spend over 50% of their
income on mortgage payments in order to become homeowners, compared
to an equivalent figures of 25.5% for urban areas. These issues
of affordability have led to the emergence of a substantial intermediate
housing market in rural areas. Recent analysis by the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation showed that outside of London, rural districts in the
South East and South West have the most significant intermediate
5. A number of schemes seek to help households
in this position achieve their aspirations to home ownership.
Shared ownership, shared equity and more recently proposals for
Homebuy schemes aim to assist households in social housing to
access the open housing market. For rural areas these schemes
can lead to a dilemma between assisting households to full home
ownership and protecting the pressured stocks of public sector
housing, and this is reflected in rural safeguards that exist
in respect to some such schemes including Right to Acquire.
6. Thus the CRC supported the opportunities
which ODPMs Homebuy proposals gave to rural residents, especially
"key workers" and the "intermediate" market,
provided that safeguards were maintained to prevent the selling
of scarce subsidised housing for rent in villages, both in order
to prevent the loss of this much needed supply, and to avoid deterring
potential donors of cheap land for "exception" sites.
7. However, the potential for increasing
home ownership in rural areas is strongly constrained by planning
policies which are generally very restrictive in order to protect
the countryside from development, prevent sprawl and excessive
car journeys, and maximise the regeneration of urban areas. Such
private housing development which is allowed is normally limited
to larger market towns and villages with a wide range of service,
which are assumed to be more "sustainable".
8. However, we consider that private market
housing for sale could and should play a stronger role in rural
communities in order to:
(a) help deliver a proportion of affordable
housing through Developer Agreements;
(b) help meet the growing "intermediate"
needs for affordable housing, ie those who do not qualify for
housing support but cannot afford market property prices; and
(c) help provide a mix of housing which meets
a wide range of socio-economic groups, and reduces the growing
polarity in rural communities between the very wealthy and the
9. Moreover, in our view the planning justification
for preventing such development is at best flawed, and at worst
perverse. Recent research3 has demonstrated that journeys to work,
services and recreation are very complex and diverse for both
town and country dwellers, and that the concept of a hierarchy
of urban centres, market towns and villages in which major activities
can be "contained" is far too simplistic. Rural settlements
exhibit complex and interacting roles which demand more sophisticated
local analysis, including the operation of regional and local
10. Similarly, rural planning policies rely
far too often on a very narrow interpretation of "sustainability"
through criteria which are often limited to a standard checklist
of available services and facilities (a tick-box approach) rather
than a more measured analysis of the social and economic wellbeing
of the local rural community. For example, it may be that the
close social and family ties typical of many rural communities
serve to offset the lack of services in place. Similarly, the
perceived safety and neighbourliness of rural communities may
score more highly than the availability of particular amenities
on local residents` priorities. The CRC is currently undertaking
some research into the meaning of "sustainable rural communities"
which we would like to share with the Committee.
11. At a wider regional or sub-regional
scale, we also consider that planning policies which aim to protect
the countryside "for its own sake" and focus the vast
majority of new development in urban areas to support urban regeneration
are quite disproportionate. Nobody wants to "concrete over
the countryside", and in any case such an outcome would take
several centuries to achieve at even the highest rates of rural
expansion4. On the contrary, what we are seeking is a level of
gradual organic growth in rural communities which can help sustain
them in social and economic terms within legitimate environmental
12. Whether and to what extent housing development
in rural areas on the scale envisaged above would have the effect
of reducing house prices, thereby improving affordability, is
a much more complex question. We know that there is no simple
equation between the supply of new market homes and house prices,
not least because new houses only comprise a small proportion
of the total housing market. Moreover, the modest scale of new
development envisaged for rural towns and villages to meet environmental
and design criteria is unlikely to have a strong impact on local
house prices by itself. However, much will depend on the workings
of that local housing market and the cumulative impact at the
sub-region or region. And overall rural house prices are more
likely to be lower than if current very restrictive planning policies
continue to be applied.
13. Current research being undertaken by
ODPM, Defra and CRC should throw more light on the workings of
rural housing markets and the extent to which new homes for sale
can meet affordability criteria as well as longer term "liveability"
aims. Again we would welcome an opportunity to explain and discuss
these arguments in more detail.
14. In conclusion, the Commission for Rural
Communities favours an increase in the opportunities for home
ownership in rural communities in order to support their social
and economic sustainability and help provide more affordable housing
for a wider range of potential residents. This will require not
only the provision of more help for potential home owners through
schemes such as Homebuy, but also planning permission for more
homes in rural areas. Decisions on the precise location of the
latter will need to respond to market signals and the social and
economic needs of rural areas, informed by better understanding
of what is required to foster "sustainable rural communities"
in the widest sense.
15. Finally, we should also stress that
our support for more home ownership comes with two essential caveats.
Firstly, that "homebuy" type schemes do not apply to
the scarce stock of much needed subsidised rented/shared equity
stock in villages; and secondly, that new developments of open
market housing in rural areas contain both a wide range of house
types and prices and a substantial proportion of subsidised rented/shared
equity homes. This mix will be essential in order to meet not
only the required variety of needs and demands of thriving rural
communities, but also to avoid the disadvantage conferred on those
unable to afford a home on the open market, and the social polarisation
which all too often results.
(1) A Housing Policy for Tomorrow's Countryside:
Countyside Agency, 2003.
(2) Meeting Affordable Housing Needs in Rural
Communities: A Good Practice Guide; Centre for Rural Development;
the Housing Corporation, 2004.
(3) Working households that can't buy; Professor
Steve Wilcox; Joseph Rowntree Foundation; 2005-11-10.
(4) Its not just about transport, is it ? James
Shorten, Land Use Consultants, Paper for CRC research study on
sustainable rural communities, 10 November 2005.
(5) Unaffordable Housing: Fables & Myths;
Alan Evans & Oliver Hartwich; Policy Exchange 2005.
201 The JRF use two definitions of an intermediate
housing market in their analysis which can be summarised as households
who work, but cannot afford to access the lower end of the housing