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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2006, 09:15 GMT
Rural housing: Only for the wealthy?
By Moira Constable
Chief executive, The Rural Housing Trust

New houses being built near the village of Little Dunmow, in Essex
Affordable rural housing is an issue for the local communities

More and more people are following their dream and moving out of the urban areas, either in pursuit of a much-vaunted lifestyle idyll or to invest in a second home.

It is no coincidence that at the same time, local people are deserting the villages where the houses once occupied by their parents and grandparents have become too expensive for them.

There is no choice for them to exercise.

Whilst freedom to move around and second home ownership in themselves are no bad things, they come at the expense of sustainability in rural areas.

If you are a newcomer to village life, surely you want to have a drink in the pub, buy a loaf of bread in the village shop or send your kids to the local school.

If you are a long-time country dweller, these ingredients of village life together with the church, the post office, and the cricket club are not just a pretty backdrop, but the vehicles for social interaction, the fabric which binds you with the rest of the community.

So, village services, businesses and social activities need custom and support as well as people to work in them.

Local affordability

Villages that become exclusive settlements for the wealthy risk losing everything that attracted the new inhabitants there in the first place.

Villages don't need any old housing; they need affordable housing. They need it for local people. Urgently.

Accepting that some house-building must take place to meet the needs of local people in villages is the first step to progress.

Society then needs to overcome the knee-jerk reaction to house-building: shock, horror, absolutely not, and reject the idea that all affordable housing equals cheap and nasty housing.

These days, quality standards for housing association development in rural areas are very high and parish councils demand small-scale, sensitive development.

Right to buy policies have taught us what happens when housing, which is meant to be affordable, is bought out.

Housing associations must keep the confidence of local residents. The rural community will understandably not support village housing schemes if guarantees on affordability and "homes for local people only" claims cannot be kept.

Right to buy policies have taught us what happens when housing which is meant to be affordable is bought out.

Similarly, why should landowners give up land, often at vastly reduced prices, for such housing when the homes are not retained for the community in perpetuity?

Fortunately, these guarantees do currently exist in villages and it is important to keep them.

It is a mistaken belief that all green belt land is beautiful, to be retained without question.

Where there is clear evidence of local housing need and where new housing would benefit the village, it is perfectly possible to build on the green belt under current planning policy.

Local involvement

It is a question of balance and compromise. From the developer's viewpoint, clearly we must be sensitive to local feeling.

Gaining community acceptance is so much easier if you are open, if you involve parish councils and provide opportunities for local people to have their say.
Houses and for sale signs

Design is important. The successful housing of the future will pay close attention to architectural detail and layout and respect the local style.

Increasingly in villages, it is not just people on low incomes who need help but also people in relatively well-paid jobs who still cannot afford a home.

The housing of the future will therefore include opportunities for part-ownership as well as renting to reflect the wider make-up of the local community.

Finally, sustainability is not all about bus frequency and proximity to facilities.

It is people who make a village sustainable. Ask a young family, removed from the resources and facilities available in towns and cities, what sustainability means and they will say being close to other family members for support.

The same goes for older people who have come to rely upon the informal social networks that are so characteristic of village life.

Rural housing is so much more than bricks and mortar. It's about maintaining the kinds of villages we have come to expect.

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