For me, Rural Housing Week is as much about collectively celebrating achievements as highlighting the cause.
Martin Collett is Operations Director for English Rural Housing Association
By village comparison, it’s a bit like the annual horticultural show, there is a peak of activity as everyone comes together to showcase the fruits of their labour. Recipes are shared, networks refreshed and those who came to marvel at the produce on display are inspired to take part themselves next year. I admit, the comparison is a little twee, but these principles of solidarity and achievement are also shared with Rural Housing Week.
The new Rural Housing Alliance website includes 22 case studies from members, celebrating good practice and what can be achieved when working in rural communities to provide affordable homes. Among these examples, there are two key themes that stand out as distinctive:
One of the first lessons I learnt when cutting my teeth in the world of rural housing, was that strong local partnerships are the driving force when it comes to enabling new homes. Like the village bell-ringing team, each member of the partnership plays an important role and when everyone pulls in the right direction at the right time, the results resonate throughout the community.
Strong partnerships are not new to the sector as a whole, but the strength of local relationships has always been at the foundation of a successful rural housing project – where trust, community consultation and meeting local needs feature so highly. Building even 10 homes in a village will usually result in a once in a generation impact, in terms of growth, investment and change.
The case study from Cirencester Housing Society, detailing the development of 11 affordable homes in Bibury, Gloucestershire, provides a great example of this, demonstrating how a strong community partnership secured homes in one of the most picturesque Cotswold villages, by harnessing the support and enthusiasm of local people. Localism was never a new idea for members of the Rural Housing Alliance, their collective pledge is drafted around this concept and their record something to be recognised and learnt from.
Carrying on the countryside comparisons, it would be fair to say that grant funding is now as sparse as the allotments after harvest festival. The whole sector has had to think and act differently, presenting a particular challenge to rural providers, where the scale of development is smaller, build costs are generally higher, and there are fewer market driven initiatives. What stands out from the Rural Housing Alliance case studies is the innovative way members are responding to this. Through embracing new freedoms and flexibilities around planning, rents and tenure options, affordable homes are still being built in rural areas.
English Rural Housing Association’s latest scheme in Wickham Bishops, Essex is an example of how alternative funding streams can be leveraged to make developments viable. Working alongside a market provider on a rural exception site, subsidy has come from land value and developer contribution, enabling the 12 affordable homes to be built without grant.
The challenge in rural areas is huge, but the entrepreneurial spirit out of which housing associations emerged is definitely still alive and kicking, with a renewed determination to continue as the most successful public private partnership to date. In my opinion, that is something to celebrate and we should all come together to do so next week.