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Homes that rural people can afford to live in

Homes that rural people can afford to live in

In 2014, when Impact Housing Association delivered 15 new affordable homes in Grasmere in the Lake District, their tenant shortlist was oversubscribed by 600%. This was no surprise, one tenant explained, since ‘it’s the first affordable housing to be built in 30 years in a village like Grasmere’. Meanwhile, in nearby Chapel Stile, a group of primary school students carried out a survey to help them learn about percentages, and discovered that 70% of the houses in their village were second homes, while the vast majority of their own parents rented privately because they couldn’t afford to buy.

The government says it is committed to tackling the housing crisis, and the current review of its rulebook for planning - the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) - provides an opportunity to back up positive rhetoric with policies that actually deliver more affordable homes. However, the approach to affordability in its revised text remains fundamentally flawed - assuming that market forces will bring down house prices if we release more greenfield land for development.

In relative terms, we have built more houses in the countryside than in cities since the NPPF was first published in 2012, but they have been much less affordable. In over 90% of rural local authorities, average house prices are now more than eight times higher than average incomes. A major factor behind this has been developers’ increasing use of ‘viability assessments’, which allow them to protect profit margins by reducing the number of affordable homes they build. Our recent ‘Viable Villages’ report with Shelter found that rural sites on which viability assessments were used saw a 48% drop in affordable housing delivery.

There has since been some progress on this issue, with guidance published alongside the revised NPPF stating that viability studies should be carried out earlier - to inform local plans instead of challenging them retrospectively. This should help create affordable housing targets that are seen as a clear and agreed minimum standard, rather than a starting point for negotiation. Developers will only be able to carry out further viability assessments in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and the onus will be on them to demonstrate what has changed since the original assessment.

We hope that these new provisions will make it harder for developers to wriggle out of building the affordable homes they have committed to, but the NPPF needs further improvements to increase the delivery of rural affordable housing. For instance, it is deeply worrying that the introduction of a new policy on ‘entry level exception sites’ allows market housing to be built on greenfield sites which would not normally be developed. This policy will sacrifice countryside needlessly and discourage landowners from bringing forward land for less profitable ‘rural exception sites’, which provide affordable housing for local people in perpetuity.

Currently, developers are not obliged to provide affordable housing on sites with fewer than 10 homes. Given that rural developments tend to be smaller than urban ones, the 10-dwelling threshold has a disproportionate impact on rural communities. Developer contributions must be levied on all sites, either in the form of affordable homes built or, if necessary for smaller sites, as a monetary payment to the council.

The final NPPF must also help local authorities build their own rural affordable housing. In recent years the delivery of council homes in rural areas has fallen from 33,490 homes in 2009/10 to 5,380 in 2016/17, while the rate of Right to Buy sales has accelerated. And yet the newly expanded definition of ‘affordable housing’ makes no mention of social housing at all. Of course, low cost home ownership options are important for people on middling incomes, but they remain out of reach for many households. The government must bring back the references to social housing in the NPPF and allow rural councils to borrow in order to build, as well as implementing stronger restrictions on Right to Buy sales in rural areas.

Ultimately, if the government is sincere in its desire to tackle the housing crisis in the countryside, it must be prepared to be more interventionist. The new NPPF is a chance for the government to put the needs of communities before the profits of developers, and to provide rural families with the affordable homes they need.

This blog was first published on 24Housing 

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Planning for people

The new planning rules are a chance for the government to put the needs of communities before the profits of developers, and to provide rural families with the affordable homes they need. 

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