The origins of English Rural Housing Association date back to the late 1980s and to The Rural Housing Trust. Established in 1976 as the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust as a campaigning voice, drawing attention to the shortage of rural affordable housing, the Trust had also assumed an innovative enabling role, putting ideas into practice to help deliver more homes. From 1985 the Trust began to establish a series of specialist local Rural Housing Associations who would ultimately own and manage rented properties to be developed by the RHT development subsidiary, English Villages Housing Association. Under the inspirational leadership of the formidable Moira Constable, the Trust’s reputation grew and in 1988 HRH The Princess Royal became President. Soon afterwards, the years of campaigning finally bore fruit when the rural exceptions sites policy was endorsed by government.
By 1990, a total of fifteen local rural associations had been formed by the Trust, each with its own Board but staffed by Trust personnel. Meanwhile the Trust had established its own unique shared ownership model, which was immediately attractive to local authorities and parish councils thanks to its simplicity and affordability, as no rent was payable by the shared owner.
As the local rural associations became more established, some decided to leave the Trust umbrella and go their own way, either independently or with another local partner. In those areas of the country in which the Trust were operating but which were not covered by any of the specialist rural associations, the Trust had to find other registered housing associations to own and manage the rented homes which it was developing. The risk with this approach however, was that the Trust’s status and reputation could depend on these arms-length associations, who although perhaps local, were not rural specialists. This had already caused some tensions and local reputational damage, in response to which the Trust established English Rural Housing Association in 1991, as the first rural housing association with multi-regional coverage.
It can be said that, unlike the majority of housing associations, English Rural was not created through a legacy, or a gift of homes, or land from a wealthy benefactor, or by transfer of properties from a local authority or other public body. Instead, English Rural was formed by practitioners: Moira Constable and her staff firmly believed that the housing needs of small rural communities were best addressed through rural specialists, and that the Trust collectively had the best expertise in this area.
English Rural’s first scheme was completed in Essex in 1993 followed by one in Kent a year later, and over the next four years the new association acquired another dozen schemes in these two counties. Growth was rapid and reflected the Trust’s regional coverage, so that by 1998 there were English Rural schemes in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset and Surrey. During this period English Rural also acquired a small number of schemes from the Trust in locations which were more remote from its main areas of operations, including in Cheshire, Devon and Nottinghamshire.
The first Chair of English Rural, Colonel John Heggs, a retired army officer and director of the Rural Community Council, was succeeded by John Hearth CBE, a barrister and former Chief Exec of the Royal Agricultural Society. As all services were provided by RHT, the association had functioned without a formal Chief Executive, but eventually the Board confirmed Barry Humphreys in this role, who duly transferred from the Trust as the first English Rural staff member, followed soon after by a small finance team.
With all of the local rural housing associations by now fully independent of RHT, the time had come for English Rural to embark on the same journey. In 2003, under the third Chair, Viscountess Sheelin Knollys, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, English Rural appointed its own Development Director, followed by two Development Managers, all of whom were ex-RHT staff members. Staff recruitment continued with an Operations Director (also from RHT) and Housing Services Manager. The process of establishing the complete independence of English Rural from RHT was not without tension and incident, but by 2006 this had been achieved, with the association fully responsible for its own housing management and property maintenance services.
In 2007, Barry Humphreys retired and was replaced by Adrian Maunders. Barry had steered the association from its formative years through the occasionally turbulent separation from RHT, where his pragmatism and astuteness were vital. With English Rural now firmly established but with an ever-increasing regulatory burden, the Board rightly anticipated that Adrian’s experience and expertise in the areas of governance and regulatory compliance would be invaluable.
Adrian remained as Chief Exec for twelve years, overseeing the transformation of the association’s organisational structure, reforming Board and Committee reporting and successfully resolving some problematic regulatory issues. Viscountess Knollys was succeeded as Chair by Michael Haslam OBE, a past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, who was followed by another former Chief Planning Officer, Adrian Parker. Chartered Surveyor and longstanding Board member Mark Tillson became the association’s sixth Chair in 2016.
Moira Constable retired in 2008 and The Rural Housing Trust was effectively dissolved soon afterwards, leaving English Rural, working alongside others, to attempt to fill the gap left by the Trust’s leading role as an advocate for rural affordable housing. This new strategy received huge endorsement when HRH The Princess Royal agreed to continue her support by becoming our Royal Patron, effectively confirming English Rural as the natural successor to RHT.
English Rural staff have continued to maintain contact with some of the local rural housing associations originally established by RHT. Test Valley Rural Housing Association was one such, and in 2009 TVRHA approached English Rural to discuss a possible merger. With the principle agreed by both Boards, due process was followed and the merger completed. The Board of TVRHA having no wish to continue to run the association as a subsidiary of English Rural, the TVRHA stock was absorbed into the English Rural portfolio, with one TVRHA Board member joining the English Rural Board.
Successive Boards had always remained strongly supportive of the need for English Rural to maintain its unique specialist profile, working with the smallest rural communities to provide more homes for local people, focused on the use of rural exceptions sites. Independence from RHT required the creation of our own development programme, and this was achieved with new homes being added to the association’s portfolio every year – including through a period in 2011-12 when government grant was not available.
Following the creation of an English Rural commercial subsidiary, ER Homes Limited, new schemes were also able to offer a wider range of tenures in response to local demand, including Social Rent, Affordable Rent, shared ownership, discounted local sale, custom build and open market sale.
By 2018, English Rural had grown to the extent that it was no longer considered a ‘smaller’ housing association in the eyes of the Regulator and was subjected to its first ‘In Depth Assessment’ (IDA), a rigorous examination of the association’s approach to risk and compliance. The IDA having concluded, with English Rural retaining the highest grades for both Governance and Viability (‘G1’ and ‘V1’), Chief Exec Adrian Maunders retired in 2019 and was succeeded by Martin Collett who, armed with a refreshed Business Strategy, will ensure English Rural’s strong legacy continues into the future.