An everyday tale of country folk

Whoever said that the countryside is a peaceful place has obviously never lived there: rural residents are at loggerheads over the issue of preservation versus progress
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The Independent Online

Second home owners will be looking more closely at their council tax bills now that they face paying double under the Government's action plan for the countryside. A quarter of a million people with a place in the country stand to lose the 50 per cent discount they currently enjoy, and the money raised will be earmarked for affordable new housing for local people.

Second home owners will be looking more closely at their council tax bills now that they face paying double under the Government's action plan for the countryside. A quarter of a million people with a place in the country stand to lose the 50 per cent discount they currently enjoy, and the money raised will be earmarked for affordable new housing for local people.

The complaint that wealthy incomers drive up the price of properties and drive out those locally employed is not new. Wales is already able to levy the full charge on its visitor-owners. So is its extension merely a tax on the privilege of having a second property in a lovely country area and a way of placating local resentments, or will it produce worthwhile revenue and forge a pecking order in the countryside?

Few places are better able to answer this than Exmoor national park. While the Government was announcing its rural White Paper, park officials were digesting the results of a housing survey of how far local needs were being met. They looked at new-build and conversions granted permission over the past eight years and found that almost a quarter were for use as a second or holiday home. Just as alarming was the discovery that 89 per cent of those living permanently in the remaining houses surveyed came from outside the area.

Jack Ellerby, principal planning officer, believes more radical action than removing the council tax discount must be taken if local people are to be helped. "If only one in 10 new homes is sold to them, we cannot continue to grant planning permission for new houses for sale on the open market given that there is limited remaining sustainable land for building. In the Peak District, they apply local occupancy conditions to new housing so only those with a strong local connection or who are moving into the area for employment can live in them."

He also calls for a separate planning-use class for second homes and for the capital gains tax allowance to be removed. "We have to balance the need to protect Exmoor while helping communities to thrive. If we are going to provide social housing that is sensitive to the surroundings then there needs to be a higher level of grant from the Housing Corporation. It costs more money to build houses that everyone is happy with in an area of outstanding beauty."

The Government's announcement that the existing Housing Corporation programme of 3,000 affordable homes a year in small rural settlements is to be doubled and a total of 9,000 homes a year across all rural districts rings alarm bells in many quarters.

A vociferous campaigner for the protection of the countryside is Jilly Cooper, the author, who lives in Gloucestershire. She has been outspoken in her criticism of the "ice-cream box" type of development that marrs so many towns and villages. Her doubts about future building programmes are, like many other others, based on evidence gleaned from the past.

"When you see the rows of identical executive housing you think 'where are the social and environmental considerations?' Once permission has been given for houses to be built it goes on and on. I recognise that I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world, but we've already seen too many places destroyed. Look at Stroud. The heart has been ripped out of it. We have just lost a battle to save a beautiful old mill, which could have been turned into living accommodation."

A lack of confidence in planning authorities is one of the main reasons people living in rural areas oppose any development. They cite inconsistent decisions - sometimes favouring local builders - and the granting of retrospective permission for questionable projects, as two particular irritants. But there are signs of a tougher approach. On Exmoor in the village of Luxborough, the authorities recently insisted on the demolition of a new house that was regarded as an eyesore, and a second developer stepped in to build smaller, stone-faced cottages in keeping with the older properties. A four-bedroom detached cottage by the same developer is for sale in the village for around £225,000 - the average price of a property on Exmoor rose by 24 per cent in the 12 months to last August, while Somerset workers are shown to be the third lowest paid in Britain, earning £50 a week less than the national average.

Malcolm Prescott, director of Webbers estate agents in Minehead, says that high- and low-priced properties can work well within one village. In Porlock, popular for its busy centre and good school, a small development of houses which included a mix of part rent, part purchase and completely rented has met a variety of local needs. A two-bedroom house bought eight years ago for £42,000 sold recently for £60,000. However, the two-bedroom stone farm cottage has moved beyond the reach of young farmworkers. "If someone is earning £12,000 a year, they cannot afford to pay £150,000, and that is just the sort of place weekenders might be looking for," says Richard Addington of Knight Frank in Exeter. He recognises the case for locals getting priority for new homes. "The better the quality and the more attractive they are, the more they will appeal to buyers wanting to move into the area from the South east."

An old farmhouse on the edge of Dartmoor on the market at a guide of £250,000 illustrates the buying power of outsiders. After a few days four locals' offers were outbid by a further £150,000.

The temptation for developers is obvious. So-called "luxury" homes command attractive prices and the demand certainly exists. At the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Alastair Rutherford, head of rural policy, believes the way forward is through the process of village design statements, where the public is consulted in advance about how it sees its development as a whole. "The local authority is then empowered to act on that and the community will not feel that it has something unwanted rammed down its throat."

Robert Barlow, a consultant to major house builders, endorses that view: "Too often planners in rural areas have no clear idea of what exactly they want, and this is what leads to problems."

Back in Exmoor National Park, Jocelyn Harral, who has lived in the area for most of her life, was at the centre of objections to a development in the heart of the village of Roadwater. It has not yet been built, but is the result of a planning decision taken a number of years ago and unlikely to have been agreed in today's climate.

"We wanted to see appropriate houses built there, not large suburban-style properties totally unsuited to the area. Not everyone in the village wanted to get involved in the discussion, and that has to be taken into account if consultation is to become routine."

She and fellow villagers, though, are sceptical of what the rural White Paper can achieve. "It is not the countryside that is in crisis but farming, and that is at the heart of the problem. Everything around here stems from that. It is our industry. When the mines and the steelworks closed down, no one suggested building more houses or giving a boost to village shops. It is only because farming is in such a dreadful way that any of this discussion is necessary."

Webbers: 01643 706917

Knight Frank: 01392 423111

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