Shaping the Future of Rural England

Rural England is in the throes of the greatest change since the Industrial Revolution. Then, the search for work and a better way of life drove millions of people into our towns and cities. Now, rather than a mass exodus, we face a deeper qualitative change in the nature of the communities which have existed in many of our villages for centuries.

Rural communities are ageing. Over half the rural population is over 45 years old and more than a fifth are over 65. These figures compare with two fifths and less than one in five respectively for urban areas. The housing market is the key driver for this change.

Young people and families are being priced out by inward migration of older people, second home buyers and the holiday let market. Average rural house prices are £43,490 higher than in urban areas but local rural earnings are on average £7,300 per annum lower. The rural lower quartile income to house price ratio is 8 to 1.

The proportion of social and affordable housing is also reducing at a much faster rate in rural areas, from 24 per cent in 1980 to 8 per cent in 2015 - in urban areas it is 20 per cent. The Right to Buy was a significant contributor to this fall.

So do we simply accept this change as part of an inevitable pattern, or do we want to work to shape the new rural?

Accepting the change means we must be prepared for the consequences. Once communities have lost their schools and other local facilities, families will not return and the many benefits of community life will be lost. There will be less support for older people to stay at home and less child care offered by grandparents. As the  population ages local employers will move away. In short, the inter-dependency of community living will forever be undermined.

To tackle this challenge head on, we need rural positive policies, rather than urban policies tweaked to fit a rural setting. The starting place must be to demonstrate why rural communities are different from urban. There are a number of features that are distinctly rural:

· A community spirit developed across generations

· Fewer landowners who have often been part of the community over many generations and want to contribute to its on-going life

· A maturity that sees the link between families and friends priced out of the housing and the need for new affordable homes to be built

·  An economy that is entrepreneurial and often local or home based

·  Workers that need to live locally and cannot rely on public transport for the commute

Crucially, we have rural communities that want new housing development but they want community led schemes that provide high quality, energy efficient homes and are affordable for people who live or work locally. We also have landowners who
would make land available for housing but lack experience and want to leave a
legacy for future generations.

Hastoe’s rural development process starts with a phone call from a Parish Council; the local need is assessed and suitable land identified in partnership with the Parish Council and planners. The landowner sells at a price liked to agricultural rather than development values.  The scheme is designed in collaboration with the community. This process is slower but the result is a proud and strengthened community as well as beautiful homes for local families. This is evidenced by invitations to return to carry out second or third phases.

If we want to plan for what is best for the future of rural England, we should make policies that are specific to the needs of rural England. Policies should recognise what is working well now, including the growing appetite for new housing development that benefits the community and landowners who are keen to play their part. Policies which incentivise landowners, support communities, provide protection for the countryside and make the connection between affordable rural housing and the entrepreneurial nature of the rural economy. They would be sensitive to how easy it can be to damage community confidence by forcing external priorities such as the Right to Buy or Starter Homes on Exception Sites.

They would build up the proportion of locally affordable housing, through Rural Exception Site development and through encouraging SME builders and the provision of S106 affordable housing quotas. The widely accepted need for more SME builders is particularly recognised in small rural communities where the local builder is known and trusted. Policies addressed to the needs of rural communities would recognise the benefit of small mixed tenure developments.

If we want to shape the future of our rural communities, now is the time to act. We have the momentum and enthusiasm, but to make things happen we also need political will.


Sue Chalkley, CEO the Hastoe Group, the leading specialist rural housing association


This blog is based on a number of essays prompted by Labour: COAST & COUNTRY’s Rural Housing programme; the full collection of essays will be published in the autumn.

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