Planning, Policies and Politics – An Interview With Alison Thompson, English Rural’s Deputy Development Director

An interview with Alison Thompson, English Rural’s Deputy Development Director

Alison has worked for English Rural for over 20 years and before that she was the one of the first Rural Housing Enablers in England. English Rural are a specialist rural housing association and only work in small villages that have a proven housing need for affordable housing for local people. Alison discusses some of the challenges and opportunities faced in the rural housing sector.

Why is affordable rural housing so important?

You’ll see a lot of statistics in housing, but one I’d like to draw your attention to, is from a report by Pragmatix and commissioned by English Rural, CPRE – the countryside charity, and the Rural Services Network which set out to look at the social and economic case for investment in new, affordable rural housing. It’s an excellent report and one statistic that caught my eye was that ten new affordable homes in a rural community supports 26 jobs, producing £250,000 of tax income for the Government. And that’s just one statistic – there are many more. It’s also extremely important to look at the wider benefits rural housing can bring to even the smallest of communities, such as being able to live close to your family, your support networks, and places of work. Not to mention keeping the lifeblood of a village alive by supporting the local schools, village halls, pubs, and shops.

Is the availability of land and cost an issue?

Historically, ‘Rural Exception Sites’ (set out in the National Planning Policy Framework) have been acquired at around a figure of £10,000 per plot. For many years rural housing schemes were delivered on that basis. Nowadays, I think we’d accept that we must be more innovative in our land acquisitions, to ensure that we can seriously engage with landowners. As far as English Rural is concerned, our land comes from various sources. The majority are local landowners, either farming or living in the community. We have, in the past, also bought land from private estates and even the National Trust. More recently, we’ve done quite a bit of work with the Church Commissioners and the Church of England dioceses, particularly since they launched their Coming Home report. We’ve also purchased sites from Local Authorities, County Councils and Parish Councils. So, there’s a range of landowners out there and it’s just a matter of trying to tap into what is going to persuade them to sell a small piece of land.

One of the difficulties we face is that a lot of our traditional Rural Exception Sites are being put forward to be allocated in a Local Plan and, even if they’re not allocated, it raises the aspiration on value from the landowner. So, we do need to try and work with them and see how we can encourage and incentivise them to make land available. The cross-subsidy policy has helped immensely and what we’re finding at English Rural is that we use our cross-subsidy to build smaller open market bungalows which enable local people to downsize. This has been very much supported by communities and we always offer three months local marketing before it goes to the wider market. It’s worth mentioning here that virtually all our open-market bungalows have been sold to local people. The effect is that it has created another level of homes which span a generation in that community.

What other ways are landowners and the community engaging?

Landowners are saying they’d be quite happy to provide land for six to eight affordable homes if they could secure a plot for themselves or their family. That’s something we are exploring now, and it would be good for local planning authorities to appreciate that cross-subsidy might not always be from an open market sale but might come forward from plots such as this, whether as a custom-build plot or including a property for the landowner within the development. It’s certainly something to explore.

One of the most important factors in identifying sites in rural communities is that it must be the with the involvement and engagement of the local community. We very much encourage Parish Councils and Community Land Trusts to carry out an initial site search, to look at their village and surroundings and identify what possible plots might be available. We can then assess their feasibility and submit those sites to the Local Authority, so that planning policy officers can provide their comments on the suitability of the site. The comments of the Local Authority and the Parish Council don’t always meet in the middle and sometimes we must take forward a site that isn’t at top of the list or is more suitable, because it’s not actually available to buy. That sort of transparent site search is really important, and it does, at the stage of a planning application or wider community consultation, give an answer to those objecting to the proposal, when they ask why a particular site was chosen. It’s good to show that there’s been a sequential and methodical approach.

Can you tell me a bit about site infrastructure?

Rural Exception Sites are, by their very nature, often in difficult locations and they may not have all main services such as gas and mains drainage, so this needs to be incorporated into the feasibility report. For example, a private treatment sewage plant may be required, or if there is no mains gas you might be looking to install air source heat pumps instead.

Interestingly, even when a site you’ve selected does has all main services, it doesn’t always go to plan. Recently, at a scheme in a Kent village, the main drainage system existed, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the road where the site faced, but rather in the rear gardens of the houses opposite. And of course, they happened to be the main objectors. We knew there would be no opportunity to get permission to tap into the main drainage system there, so we had to look at a private sewage treatment plant instead. It can be a challenging!

In that same village, we had promised the local community we would install cheaper-to-run air source heat pumps for heating, even though there was mains gas in the village. It was something that the Parish Council was very keen on and English Rural is looking to include more air source heat pumps in our developments. Once that was agreed and the build started on site, UK Power Networks connected the landlord supply but then informed us that if we wanted air source heat pumps an upgrade of the supply and substation would be required at a cost of around £130,000. Furthermore, this would span two landowners’ fields and so we’d need to get their permission and pay their costs, to have those diversions in place. In the end it proved financially unviable to continue along that route. Given the extra costs, the Parish Council was disappointed but appreciated we would need to go back to the option of gas heating.  However, we could look at including solar panels which would go towards their renewable energy aspirations.

How does Government policy affect what you do?

Thinking about the Government’s First Homes policy and Designated Rural Areas,  Local Authorities should look at whether more of their parishes could be included in Section 157 of the 1985 Housing Act so that they are incorporated into a designated rural area. For example, South Somerset Council recently undertook that process and was successful. Of course, we need to look at how the First Homes policy develops but thinking about designated rural areas does give Rural Exception Sites more protection from initiatives such as First Homes. If Local Authorities could investigate this matter, it would be a real help to rural housing associations.

The other thing to mention is the Right to Buy. With English Rural, none of our homes have ever been lost to the open market and we plan to keep it that way. Our residents will not have the Right to Buy or right to Acquire. Obviously, we look at the Voluntary Right to Buy and people porting over their discount, but I do think it’s important that we can say to the communities we serve, that the homes we build will be there for future generations.

It’s also worth mentioning that we’ve just started a 12-month research collaboration with University College London (UCL) focusing on the policies designed to enable affordable rural housing developments and the lack of available land being a critical barrier to progressing schemes in rural areas. We’re really excited about the research as it will shed more light on how policy decisions and the lack of available land can impact the affordable rural housing sector.

Is NIMBYism alive and kicking?

NIMBYism and objectors are a key challenge and a key constraint in bringing forward rural housing to a community in need. NIMBYs have been alive and kicking for as long as I can remember, but back then we had small consultations in village halls where people would come along and voice their concerns and objections and then go away. But nowadays, with the advent of social media, we see dedicated action groups being created, designed to fight housing in their village without appreciating why the homes are needed and how they can actually prevent a rural community from withering on the vine.

At the start of the covid pandemic we introduced an online consultation platform with a dedicated website for that village. It detailed the proposed plans, including maps and proposed locations setting out all the information in one place, allowing people to comment and even register an interest for one of the proposed homes. The Parish Councils and Community Land Trusts who we are working with were delighted with this. We were able to run the village website for four weeks and go back to them on a weekly basis letting them know how many people had looked at the plans and what the comments were. They found that really helpful and it avoided any confrontation, which can be very difficult for people who need one of our homes to actually speak out in a public setting. I do think it is the way forward. It’s a shame that often a small vocal minority can stop something or concern the Parish Council so much that they might lose their nerve to continue with a project.

Objectors will invariably endeavour to influence local politicians and I think Local Authorities can provide support to their members by reassuring them that the right policies are already in place. It’s not unusual for us to have a hundred or more objections to a planning application, even when we’ve done a huge amount of upfront community consultation. But because we have actually produced a planning application that meets all material planning objectives, then we are invariably successful when it comes in front of the planning committee.

Can you talk a bit about planning politics and capacity?

This is an issue not just for rural housing. I know some of my fellow registered providers will say that there is often a capacity issue in local planning departments and so therefore applications are getting stuck in the queue for longer than we would hope for.

Due to the long lead time for rural schemes and the fact that you’re working with planning officers right at the very beginning we often find that planning officers move on or change roles, leaving little continuity. So, when you get to the planning application stage, which might be three or four years later, there are different officers in place with different viewpoints who want to revisit the initial site search to re-establish that the best site was chosen.

That’s both time consuming and disappointing and unfortunately there seems to be an acceptance that rural schemes will take a long time. It’s amazing when a project goes through in just two or three years, but incredibly frustrating when it takes seven years to get planning approval. Of course, you’re elated when you finally get approval, but you do reflect on how it took to get there. I think that’s one of the reasons many registered providers no longer consider rural schemes, which is a shame. We definitely need to look at how we can increase the capacity in the local planning authorities.

What about planning applications and documentation?

There are many detailed reports and surveys required to support a planning application on a rural exception site. One issue that can take up a lot of our time and money is local wildlife and we do an awful lot with ecology. One of our current schemes has reptiles on site, but there are too many to relocate to the other part of the field, so we need to look for a suitable receptor site. It’s taken us almost as long to find a receptor site for the slow worms, as it did to find the site for the affordable homes. But we were very fortunate that a local trust with land and an interest in ecology has agreed to make available a couple of acres for us to relocate the slow worms and grass snakes. However, the ecology work we do doesn’t come without a cost. And so far, bearing in mind we haven’t yet received planning permission or started any work, we’ve spent nearly £20,000 on the preliminary work. Again, these processes can slow up an application significantly.

Quite frequently we receive comments from objectors during a consultation stating that the roads are too narrow or that the village can’t take any more traffic, without recognising that this is a proposed scheme for local people. Therefore, much of that traffic will already exist in the village and so it then becomes a matter of educating and discussing, trying to ensure that the planning application has every possible aspect covered to get it to committee.

How do you work with Homes England?

We have a programme of continuous market engagement which means that we’re able to run our own development programme. We’re able to discuss our pipeline of projects that are coming forward with our programme managers at Homes England. This enable us to discuss the difficulties and opportunities a site might bring, together with any constraints and costs that might be involved. So, we have this ongoing dialogue with Homes England, sometimes up to two years before we actually get planning permission and submit a formal bid. The final step is to have a scheme audited and for us to provide all the documentation that is required to support the grant that we’ve received.

Let’s talk about opportunities in the sector

At English Rural, we’re delighted that Homes England are focusing on a strong rural strategy as we hope it will bring forward more rural schemes. The role of the Rural Housing Enabler is absolutely essential and I know the independence they offer in carrying out housing needs surveys does help with the planning process. It gives comfort to planning officers that the housing need has been independently identified. I know that many Rural Housing Enablers were receiving their funding through the Community Housing Fund, but that’s now been withdraw. So, their continued funding is something that Local Authorities, Homes England and Registered Providers need to support going forward.

The need to unlock unused sector capacity is something that English Rural has been exploring. Unlocking the capacity that smaller housing associations might have in respect of land that they own or funding reserves they have but perhaps not the skills or experience to bring forward the housing that’s needed. That’s where English Rural can come in and help. As an example, we recently partnered with Grayshott Housing Association that had homes dating back to the 1930s. Much of the accommodation wasn’t suitable by today’s standards but they had some financial reserves which would allow them to consider demolishing some of the homes with large gardens and rebuild more creatively. So, we worked collaboratively with them as their development agent and subsequently six properties were demolished and sixteen built in their place. That was a tremendous success with the community and residents because of the help we were able to offer GHA in both running their development programme and the consultation process.

We do need to work on the relationship we have with landowners. Interestingly, I recently had a meeting with the Head of Strategic Land Investment at the Church Commissioners.  This is because we’d recently received planning consent with a Community Land Trust, on land that the Church Commissioners owned. It was a long, drawn-out process, but they were delighted when the permission came through and they’re very much looking forward to delivering more Rural Exception Sites and working with a range of partners, so that’s very exciting. Their Coming Home report isn’t just focused on the Dioceses at the Church of England but also on the Church Commissioners themselves, so they are trying to speed up that process.

We need to find out what local landowners want and what will persuade them and incentivise them to release land in a village. And then we need to try and talk to our stakeholder partners to see if we can gain their agreement and support. A Parish Council I spoke to recently said we’d rather have some housing than no housing and if that means there are two open market homes, or the landowner gets a property that’s fine, at least we still get affordable homes built for the local community.

How do we encourage new providers to develop?

The work that Homes England are doing on their rural strategy will encourage other providers to look at rural areas. It feels like there’s been a shift in focus from Homes England and the Government, from the monetary value of rural housing to an increased emphasis on place and the wider value that affordable homes bring to a community by improving people’s lives and wellbeing. Historically, investment has been driven by grant-per-unit, but I feel we are now looking at the wider issues. It’s encouraging that our partners appear to be focusing on that too.

Why is reputation and quality important?

Our reputation is everything. Along with our fellow rural housing associations, we build superb quality homes. We always build just a small number of high-quality homes in beautiful areas of the countryside, providing truly affordable homes for local people and sustaining those rural communities. Knowing we can say the homes will be there for future generations is a key message for us and one that ensures our reputation stays intact and villages continue to trust in our work.

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