Can rural England be saved?

Politics.co.uk
Politics.co.uk

Rural England is being threatened by a brutal combination of high house prices and low wages.

According to The Taylor Review - Living Working Countryside - these twin threats are placing unsustainable pressure on rural economies, jeopardising their very existence.

In response, the government must recalibrate its planning and affordable housing policy or risk seeing village life permanently eroded, argues author/MP Matthew Taylor.

"The English countryside is a wonderful place to live and work - if you can afford a home, if you can find a reasonably paid job," says Mr Taylor.


"But for too many people country life is challenging and urgent action is vital to stop villages dying and our market towns being wrecked by unsympathetic development."

Secret migration

This picture has not developed overnight - with demographic and economic factors gestating over a period of years to reach the chronic state depicted in the report.

Over the last decade, rural populations have increased by 800,000 inhabitants, around seven per cent. This compares with three per cent in urban areas.

Furthermore, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) project further 16 per cent rural population growth by 2028.

The nature of this migration has also altered the demographic picture of rural communities - with a new outflow of people aged between 15 and 30, replaced by a new inflow of those aged 30-years and above.

In addition, the average house price is £8,000 more in rural areas than in urban.

Compounding this, local wages in rural areas are, on average, £5,345 lower than those in rural areas, standing at £20,895.

These twin factors have left "virtually gated" communities of the wealthy and the old. As such, the economic prosperity of rural villages is compromised.

Those of working age are priced out of the community and are forced to move to the urban conurbations, reducing skills and demand for services in villages.

However, this does not have to be the case, argues Taylor.

"In many cases just a handful of well designed homes, kept affordable in perpetuity for local people, will make all the difference to the sustainability of a village and its services," he explains.

Where will it end?

To help facilitate this kind of design, the report makes three key recommendations:

  • New planning policies to shift growth of market towns from endless bland housing estates to instead create new neighbourhood extensions, with shops and community facilities, workplaces and open spaces.
  • A new 'community-led affordable housing' initiative for smaller rural communities.
  • The creation of flexible new planning rules to encourage village businesses.

The report argues that through a 'bottom-up' approach local communities can be encouraged to recognise the need for innovation and change - fully participating in the development of new infrastructure and services.

Failure to achieve this could leave once vibrant communities in terminal decline.

"We need to start creating attractive new neighbourhoods and communities as our market towns grow, or we'll wreck them," continues Mr Taylor.

"Endless bland housing estates crammed onto the edge of towns are often unattractive, they fail to deliver local services, shops or open spaces. The residents end up driving into town for everything they need, clogging up the roads.

"No wonder local people so often oppose them", he adds.

Mr Taylor believes future developments should be shaped to the needs of existing communities, integrated with infrastructure and creating a symbiotic relationship with rural villages.

Plans for tomorrow

The government has welcomed the proposals outlined, and suggested the ideas could be incorporated into plans to build three million new homes in the UK by 2020

"It's simply not fair that people in rural communities struggle to afford a place of their own," says housing minister Caroline Flint.

"I am determined that we do everything we can to further help people in rural communities into home ownership, by for example helping landowners to establish community land trusts and by ensuring councils deliver the sustainable homes their communities need."

With this in mind the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has outlined plans for a £3.9 billion investment in rural developments in England - with plans to see businesses, jobs and services in the countryside flourish.

However, government targets presently suggest just 10,300 new affordable homes will be built in smaller rural communities (defined as less than 3,000 inhabitants) over the next three years. This represents a fraction of the demand recorded in the Taylor review.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) has also urged the government to take more decisive action.

"The Taylor Review is a step in the right direction but must be followed through with real action from the government to stop the countryside becoming a quaint museum to be enjoyed at weekends by wealthy commuters," said Rics spokesperson, James Rowlands.

"Ensuring the long-term affordability of homes in rural communities, and allowing landowners a greater say in how land is used after it is sold, will help make housing more accessible for people in the countryside."

Yet, the ideas in the report have been warmly welcomed by others.

"Rather than poorly serviced mono-estates bolted-on to market towns, we must plan for new neighbourhoods and community extensions which ensure that the housing provided offers a variety of tenure, with the provision of live/ works spaces and local services, all in sustainable communities where people want to live and work," comments Town and County Planning Association (TCPA) senior policy officer, Fiona Mannion.

Sentiments echoed by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

"The CIH is pleased to see that the Taylor Review has a more sensitive interpretation of what sustainability means in rural areas," says chief Executive, Sarah Webb.

"Rather than blocking the building of new homes in a village on the basis of its lack of services, we should work closely with local people to assess how a housing development could add to or diminish the sustainability of the community.

"In many cases we should consider building homes to attract families, shops, schools, transport and the wider economy back into rural areas and ensure they have a long-term future."

The message to the government, then, is act now or see the countryside reduced to a tourist destination for wealth urbanites.

Chris O'Toole

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