We have a choice between a rural future of slowly atrophying villages being photographed by tourists, or a living, breathing, dynamic rural economy with great jobs, great broadband, great places to live and great new homes.
By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation
3 May 2016
One of the important consequences of the Voluntary Right to Buy deal is that it has reinvigorated, at least for me, the debate about rural housing. The challenge of meeting rural housing need was an integral part of the negotiation with the Government about the terms of the voluntary deal. We were absolutely clear that housing associations should be able to say no to Right to Buy requests in rural areas – but also have the opportunity to say yes. We succeeded in delivering this. Under the Voluntary Right to Buy, no housing association will be forced to sell a rural home.
Many of our rural members, however, were still very concerned. They wanted to be able to protect the possibility of future rural exception sites so that landowners would agree to release land. They were anxious that an offer of portability would not be deliverable in a rural context and that the whole programme would tend to reduce the overall number of affordable homes for rent.
Although I am confident this this won’t be the outcome, and we are working closely with members and with the Government to ensure that it isn’t, I do completely understand the concerns. Developing new homes in many parts of rural England has been far too difficult and it is not hard to see why housing associations and rural communities want to protect what little they have.
But here’s the rub. If the ambition is to protect what we have and carry on doing what we have done until now, we will be nowhere near meeting the needs of rural England. We have a housing crisis. At the heart of that crisis is an acknowledgement that we have been building only half of the number of new homes we need. That’s a problem for our market towns and villages as much as for our great cities. In some rural areas we have built only a fifth of the homes we need. That in turn is leading to a significant aging of the rural population as young people struggle to find a home of their own to buy or rent. By 2021, nearly 1 in 5 households in urban areas are projected to be under 35, compared with just 1 in 8 in rural areas.
This is not a small or marginal issue. Around one in five of us lives in a place that is officially designated as rural. That’s more than the populations of London, Birmingham and Merseyside combined. Imagine the outcry if we accepted that in those cities the young workers who are central to the economy would move away – and then accepted that the new homes they need would depend on the grace and favour of large scale landowners and even then only if the neighbours didn’t complain.
Those of us who care about this have not made nearly as much noise as we should have done. We allow ourselves to be distracted by those with a vested interest putting out scaremongering stories about building on the green belt as though the green belt was under sustained attack. Not only is that not true, but the green belt has grown considerably since it was introduced. There is far more green belt now than there was in the 1970s despite the fact that our population is growing. Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt I should make clear that green belt is an urban containment policy, not a rural one.
Even as I write this I can hear the siren calls of the self-interested and the rural romantics: “you want to concrete over the countryside”. It’s a great line if you want to scare reasonable people away. It’s not true of course. Neither I nor anyone I know actually wants to do that. We all want to protect and enhance the countryside. It’s part of our national psyche, whether we live there, visit it regularly or only see it on the television. We’ve all allowed this nonsense to gain credibility – which is why we are all complicit in the problem.
So cards on the table. I want to protect and enhance the countryside. But I want to do this by allowing the building of the new homes we desperately need. I’ve been to many new developments in villages which have enhanced the aesthetics of the village – but even more importantly have enhanced the economic potential, the ability of young people to live where they grew up and raise families of their own and helped the shop and school to stay open. Failure to build leads to villages with no children and failing economies.
It’s time to be bold. We have a clear choice between a rural future of slowly atrophying villages being photographed by tourists, or a living, breathing, dynamic rural economy with great jobs, great broadband, great places to live and great new homes. If we want to deliver that dynamic future – and in truth it’s the only future we should contemplate – we have to win the argument that the best, indeed the only, way to protect and enhance the countryside is to get building. We’ll make that case. Will you?