Eversholt, Bedfordshire, 12 October 2023 — English Rural, a leading not-for-profit provider of affordable rural homes across England, hosted a landmark conference attended by over 50 community leaders, rural housing experts, parish council members, landowners, and other rural stakeholders at Eversholt Hall. Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal delivered an inspiring keynote address underscoring the vital importance of continued investment in affordable rural housing to foster vibrant, sustainable communities.
The day commenced with opening remarks from English Rural’s Chief Executive Martin Collett, setting the context for discussions around the provision, impact, and future of rural housing. This was followed by presentations from five expert speakers.
Tracy Cowan, Chief Executive of the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity, introduced the pivotal role of Rural Housing Enablers in facilitating local partnerships between councils, landlords, developers, and communities to understand housing needs and deliver solutions.
Jemma McLean, Community Engagement Team Leader at the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity, provided additional insights into the Rural Housing Enabler function from her extensive experience assisting rural communities.
Former Chairman of Dunsfold Parish Council Stephen Hayward offered his unique perspective as a parish council member who collaborated closely with English Rural on multiple affordable housing projects. He emphasised the importance of open communication channels between councils and housing providers.
Head of Property Maintenance at The Bedford Estates Richard Macan-Lind and English Rural’s Development Director Richard DeVille jointly presented details on an impactful rural housing initiative in Woburn. They highlighted the value of a collaborative approach between landowners, housing providers and the wider community.
“Our commitment goes beyond simply housebuilding. We engage collaboratively with Parish Councils, landowners, local authorities, and the wider community. This unified approach is essential for nurturing vibrant and self-sustaining rural communities. In over a decade, only six parishes Central Bedfordshire have secured affordable housing developments, resulting in just 42 rented homes being built using the rural exception site policy. The stark disparity between the provision and the need underscores the urgency for a more robust and inclusive approach to rural housing schemes to better serve the communities awaiting solutions.” said Richard DeVille.
In her keynote address, The Princess Royal commended English Rural’s decades-long contributions to rural communities and underlined the transformative impact affordable housing can have on both individual lives and broader communal vitality.
The presentations were followed by a refreshment break during which Her Royal Highness engaged in conversation with attendees. A special moment occurred when 7-year-old Freddie Neilson, whose father was among the conference guests, presented a posy of flowers to The Princess Royal before her departure.
The conference resumed with a presentation by John Saunders, English Rural’s Regional Housing Manager, who provided insights into the lived experiences of residents in affordable rural housing developments. He highlighted two real-life case-studies – Gordon and Marie, current residents of English Rural. Through Gordon and Marie’s stories, the true human impact of rural affordable housing was underscored. Mr Saunders explained how access to suitable and stable homes had been transformative, enabling Gordon and Marie to feel a deeper sense of security, dignity, and belonging within their village. The case-studies demonstrated how rural housing can empower residents to become more financially, socially, and civically engaged within their own communities.
The event culminated in a Q&A session with all speakers, moderated by Martin Collett, followed by a summary and call to action, emphasising the collective responsibility towards the development of rural housing and vibrant communities.
“Affordable rural housing serves as much more than shelter; it acts as the backbone of our villages, maintaining local businesses, schools, and the very essence of community spirit. It provides an avenue for residents to invest both economically and emotionally in their own communities,” said Martin Collett.
The conference highlighted the transformative impact on individual lives, like those of Marie and Gordon, as well as the broader social and economic benefits affordable rural housing brings to rural communities.