'Our rural communities play a crucial role, we must support them.'
England's rural communities are being undermined by a lack of affordable housing, says Darren Baxter from IPPR, as the organisation launches a new report during Rural Housing Week.
Rural communities face a significant demographic transition. New analysis by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that by 2038, there will be 63 people aged over 65 for every 100 working aged people, 24 more than in 2014. This is significantly higher than in urban areas where there are predicted to be just 31 people aged over 65 to every 100 working aged people.
This demographic transformation is likely to further compound the challenges that rural communities currently face. Over the last five years 52 schools, 1,300 pubs and 81 post offices have closed in rural communities. This is often the result of young, economically active people leaving rural communities, taking with them their demand for the services vital for communities to thrive. Once these services close it can make it harder for other families and working age to continue living in these communities, leading to their terminal decline.
The flight of younger people away from rural communities is in part driven by the high cost of housing in the countryside. For a young family, finding somewhere to call home in the rural community in which they grew up or in which they work is a significant challenge. The average rural house price of £320,700 is more than £87,000 higher than the urban average excluding London (£233,600), while average earnings are lower. At the same time, only eight per cent of the housing stock in rural areas is affordable compared to 20 per cent in urban areas.
While affordable housing is not a silver bullet in reversing this trend, and efforts are needed to address poor transport connectivity, low pay and a lack of services, it can make a significant contribution to the sustainability of rural communities. This is why, in our recent report A new rural settlement: fixing the affordable housing crisis in rural England, IPPR are calling for a range of interventions to tackle the rural affordable housing gap.
Firstly, efforts are needed to increase the amount of affordable in existing rural communities. To achieve this, central government should introduce a rural affordable housing target and a specific rural housing grant, administered by Homes England, which should reflect the higher costs of developing in rural areas.
At a regional tier, devolution can also play a role in increasing supply. Rural areas should enter into new devolution deals, negotiating additional resources for housing and infrastructure in order to boost supply, alongside securing additional powers to make sure they can develop policy which is appropriate to the rural context
Secondly, land needs to be brought forward at a price which supports affordable housing development. To achieve this, local authorities should set ‘upfront’ targets in their local plans for affordable housing in their local areas. While government should reform elements of planning policy which are particularly harmful in rural areas. This should include exempting rural areas from changes to the section 106 requirements which no longer require affordable housing commitments on sites of less than 10 units.
Lastly, all parts of the housing and political systems need to better recognise the needs of rural communities in the policy they enact. To achieve this, we are calling for government to establish a central rural policy unit, housed in the Cabinet Office, which should focus on promoting rural communities, ensuring that future housing meets the needs of the countryside.
If politicians want to see a thriving rural England they need to take immediate action to support rural communities. Addressing the housing crisis is a key part of this and these interventions provide a strong framework for supporting communities to thrive.
Darren Baxter is a research fellow at IPPR.