Researchers from the English Rural Housing Association, in collaboration with UCL, have posited that increasing the number of homes in rural areas needn’t compromise the unique character of these communities.

Their study, named “Land, Landowners, and the Delivery of Affordable Homes in Rural Areas”, delves into the challenges of housing affordability in rural settings. It underscores the potential of maximising existing policies to usher in much-needed affordable housing.

Introduced back in 1991, the national policy aimed to facilitate affordable housing on smaller rural land parcels, which would typically not receive housing development permissions. A key stipulation is that such developments should predominantly cater to those with ties to the local community.

Over the years, the policy has evolved, permitting a limited number of market sale homes, but only if it ensures the delivery of affordable housing. In a bid to promote more such developments, the government released fresh planning practice guidance in June 2021.

Yet, the policy’s uptake has been lukewarm since its inception. Data from 2016-2017 reveals that a mere 14 out of 91 rural authorities built affordable homes on these sites. Interestingly, Cornwall accounted for 37% of these constructions.

Several factors contribute to this tepid response. These range from a limited grasp of the policy, reluctance from local landowners to part with land, ambiguities in policy wording, to resistance from local councils and inhabitants.

The rural housing conundrum is multifaceted. It blends the desire to preserve village aesthetics, sparse rural facilities, environmental constraints, and escalating property values. Coupled with the lower earning potential in these regions and a trend of urbanites moving to rural areas, the demand-supply gap for rural housing widens. This, in turn, pushes prices to levels beyond the reach of local dwellers.

However, the researchers are optimistic. They believe that better dissemination of information about the programme can navigate these challenges.

Dr Phoebe Stirling, from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning, remarked, the study underscores the significance of exception site development for rural communities and economies. While landowners play a pivotal role, the success of such projects hinges on collective efforts. The findings shed light on how this collaboration can materialise.

The study puts forth five key suggestions:

  1. Equip every parish council with details about the rural exception site policy.
  2. Empower rural housing enablers to amplify policy awareness.
  3. Offer guidelines to motivate landowners to earmark land for rural exception sites.
  4. Launch a nationwide campaign spotlighting the policy.
  5. Design an exemplary model for rural site development, offering a glimpse into potential housing designs.

Martin Collett, at the helm of English Rural Housing Association, stated, “We’re keen to shine a light on rural exception sites. We envision a national conversation that underscores their transformative potential for rural landscapes and their inhabitants.”

Reacting to the findings, a representative from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities commented, “Our National Planning Policy Framework is tailored to resonate with rural nuances, endorsing housing projects that mirror local requirements. We urge local planning bodies to champion more such sites, ensuring rural folks can continue to call their communities home.”