English Rural: Reflections on the Past Year

The Government has pledged to build 300,000 homes each year to address the housing crisis in the UK.

Of course, the housing crisis isn’t just confined to urban areas. Many people cannot afford to live in their local village. Put simply, there aren’t enough affordable homes for rent, and they can’t afford to buy. That’s why the work of rural housing associations like English Rural, is so important. But we can’t do it alone.

English Rural greatly values its partnerships with around 40 Borough and District Councils as well as 200 Parish Councils. These strong partnerships have been fundamental to the Association’s growth from our inception in 1992 to 1,250 homes in around 150 villages today, and an ambition to build a further 200 in our current 5 year Business Strategy.

We are pleased to report on a number of successes over the year which have been achieved alongside some external challenges and important organisational changes.

We have increased the supply of affordable homes in rural communities by building a new development in Widford, Essex. Our newest scheme in Bolney, Sussex was officially opened in June and elsewhere construction continues at Warehorne, Kent. The first bricks have been laid in Throwley, Kent, and in Roxwell, Essex. Work has also begun on our third phase in Dunsfold, in Surrey. We’re always thrilled when villages invite us back into their community. This not only highlights the continuing need for affordable homes but also demonstrates the trust they have in English Rural.

Not only do we support villages in securing affordable homes, but also vital community assets that contribute to broader social and economic wellbeing. In fact, a recent report by CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – rather interestingly revealed that communities are more content and better connected if they have a pub in their local area. But sadly, we know from the National Housing Federation’s Rural Life Monitor research that nearly 100 pubs a year close in rural areas. Not to mention over 50 schools in the last 5 years and over 80 post offices since 2011.

Of course, building new homes has its challenges. Be it negotiating planning complexities, addressing concerns from those opposed or unexpected technical barriers. But it’s the strong partnerships we hold within each community that provides the resilience needed to overcome these challenges.

We continue to influence national housing and planning policy through our work with the Rural Housing Alliance and have seen positive changes to the National Planning Policy with the support of our rural advocates and partners.

We are delighted to report that a long-standing supporter and our Royal Patron, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, continues to be a strong advocate for affordable rural housing.  We were pleased to welcome her to Bolney in Sussex earlier in the year where she officially opened 12 affordable homes at Magdalene Rise, which had been delivered in partnership with the Parish Council, the District Council and, of course, the local community.

As well as external advocacy for the work we do, we also focus on internal advocacy within the English Rural team. Committed and passionate, they get affordable rural homes built, keep our residents happy, maintain our properties and keep the wheels in motion. By investing in our team and new technologies, we can continue to provide a great service to our residents. Speaking of which, we are also proud to say that we are an early adopter of the National Housing Federation’s ‘Together with Tenants’ plan. This seeks to strengthen the relationship between housing associations and residents by supporting quality and transparent services. We are pleased to say that English Rural has a seat on the national steering group.

Some less welcome ideas within the sector such as Entry Level Exception Sites remain a concern and could negatively impact on the willingness of landowners to make sites available for development. As such, we are pleased to endorse a call from the Rural Services Network for a Rural Strategy in their open letter to the Government in April and to The Times newspaper in July this year.

For rural communities to thrive, we believe local people deserve to live in high-quality, well-managed homes that are comfortable, safe, and most importantly, affordable. A review of our design standards was carried out during the year and has resulted in an increased emphasis on fabric-first principles. These focus on using good design and build standards which ensure homes are extremely energy efficient and cost less to run – a further benefit to our residents.

Investing in our existing homes is also a priority. A recent condition survey of all our properties showed that they are safe and well maintained and we shall ensure this continues. In fact, we have already started a programme of investing half a million pounds to replace older heating systems with renewable heat technology.

Within English Rural we have seen significant internal organisational changes with the retirement of English Rural’s longstanding Chief Executive, Adrian Maunders and the appointment of Martin Collett as his successor. This change has coincided with an updated Business Strategy, which sets out an ambitious and exciting future, which is at the same time realistic. Critically, the new Business Strategy is underpinned by our continued strong financial performance, good governance and talented pool of staff. It is also supported by seven Strategic Ambitions:

  1. To work with residents and deliver services in an accountable way.
  2. To grow by building new homes in partnership with rural communities.
  3. To play a leading and influential role nationally and within the rural housing sector.
  4. To invest in and deliver good governance.
  5. To invest in securing and keeping the best talent.
  6. To actively seek partnership opportunities with other smaller rural housing associations.
  7. To use assets effectively and support sound financial health.

English Rural values its trusted partnerships and this is set to continue into 2020 and beyond. These include the mutual support we have in working with other rural housing associations, our strong and positive relationship with the National Housing Federation, the CPRE – The Countryside Charity, the Rural Housing Alliance, Homes England, Local Authorities, Parish Councils – and more.

Martin Collett, our Chief Executive, was one of the key architects of the Five Star Plan for Rural Housing. This national-level partnership has seen a range of organisations sign up – and not just housing associations. The 5-Star Plan has been developed through a partnership between the Rural Housing Alliance and the National Housing Federation and its aim is to inspire us all to do more to deliver the ambition it sets out.

The Plan helped housing associations complete over 5,000 homes in rural areas last year, which is 12% of all completions in England. Housing associations also built 4% more homes this year than in the previous year. Therefore, we ask you to pledge your support for the Plan if you have not already done so.

English Rural’s purpose is as valid today as it was when the Association was created 27 years ago.  And everyone, including both the Board and Staff will continue to collectively deliver our ambitions which are so vital for rural communities to thrive.

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