Is there a future for rural living?

This green and pleasant land... doesn't come cheap. Despite the recession, sales of second homes are pricing young families out of the countryside. Graham Norwood hears how rural communities are fighting back

The country life may have its benefits – from green fields to peace and quiet – but affordable housing clearly isn't one of them. Now though, rural communities are battling to unite self-builders, councils and local residents to save villages from becoming theme parks for the wealthy.

Countryside homes are practically unaffordable on the average rural or agricultural salary. And according to a survey by estate agents Savills, are 51 per cent more expensive than similar properties in urban areas.

So in the south west a typical house in a city or town costs £208,744 while its rural equivalent is a whopping £311,237. In the Home Counties an average home costs £257,284 in towns but soars to £417,186 outside. Most startling is the West Midlands where an urban house costs £163,462 but in the country is 80 per cent more at£293,708.

"The problem is worse than this because so many homes in the country are very large," explains Lucien Cook, head of Savills' research. "So even if the price per square foot appears affordable, the overall sizes make them too expensive."

The issue will be highlighted tomorrow when Dr Stuart Burgess, the Rural Advocate – an independent watchdog on countryside affairs – presents his two-yearly report to Gordon Brown. It is expected to say that the cost of housing is a chief cause of the outflow of young people, jobs and facilities from villages.

Data compiled by the Commission for Rural Communities, which supports the Rural Advocate, shows over 350,000 new rural households being created every five years as young people leave home and newcomers move in to the countryside. This outstrips even the most optimistic growth in new homes being built.

Meanwhile the number of second homes in the countryside grew by 1,500 in 2008/9 in England alone, despite the recession being in full flow at the time. Separate research by estate agent Knight Frank shows that in parts of Britain the glut of second homes has driven up prices by as much as 130 per cent.

Just 13 per cent of the housing stock in the countryside is classified as social housing – low cost to buy or rent from housing associations – while in urban areas it is 22 per cent. Council houses account for just 4 per cent of rural stock, well under half the urban total.

But it does not have to be this way, as some rural communities are demonstrating. Community Land Trusts are non-profit-making bodies creating low cost homes and keeping them for local people in perpetuity. They exist across the country but are most common in Cornwall, which has finished CLT homes in the villages of Rock and Blisland, nearing completion at The Lizard and in preparation at eight other locations. They secure sites at peppercorn rents from local farmers or councils, then organise local housing associations or self-builders to construct homes with covenants stopping them being sold to outsiders or used for private renting.

"Many farmers recognise the need for homes for locals so sell land cheaply" says Alan Fox, who co-ordinates Cornwall's CLTs. Many of the sites have already been designated by councils as 'rural exceptions' – agricultural or redundant plots where homes may be built on a not-for-profit basis for locals.

This approach works. Two-bedroom CLT homes at Blisland village sold to local familes at £101,763 each – in an area where £250,000 is the norm – and three bed houses were £122,115. They are high quality, too, with ground source heat pumps providing underfloor central heating, wood burning stoves, double glazed timber windows, real slate roofs and sills, and excellent space standards.

These "rural exception" sites can be the key to providing cheap countryside homes. Most parish and district councils identify such sites on plans and have officers called Rural Housing Enablers (RHEs) who help community groups use the sites to encourage low-cost homes – but they usually insist on existing residents initiating the process.

The route advocated by RHEs for interested local residents is to firstly establish a need for affordable housing by surveying local incomes and private housing costs. Then they should identify nearby rural exception sites and secure the support of other residents for new homes – this is often the toughest job, as existing home owners in small communities often cherish the exclusivity of their villages. Finally the local RHE then consults housing associations, which make decisions on where to build future homes for low-cost sale or rent.

"It's a long process, bureaucratic and with plenty of form-filling. The hardest part is not dealing with the authorities but persuading local people to accept the need. It was a long haul but the RHE steered us through the process and the housing association eventually built 14 homes," says Jan Hunter, who campaigned for affordable Cotswolds homes.

Housing associations persuaded to build in rural locations then usually rent out their properties – often to families on council waiting lists – or sell them via one of the government's many shared ownership schemes. For example the Hastoe association, which specialises in rural housing, has one bed homes near Glastonbury in Dorset for £107,500, or via shared ownership with buyers getting a mortgage for 50 per cent of the price and then "topping up" with a monthly rent and service charge.

Yet it is not through housing associations let alone big-name developers that the rural homes shortage may be addressed in future. The Conservatives want a huge growth in the number of self-builders, as happens across much of Europe. "Across the country self-builders are creating affordable homes in the places where young families struggle with sky-high house prices," says Tory housing spokesman Grant Shapps.

He insists this is not mere electioneering. Councils will survey families wishing to self-build, then be obliged to allocate land to "kick-start this rural housing revolution".

Even if this happens the first new homes will not appear for some years – by which time, the Rural Advocate believes, the crisis will be even worse.



The Commission for Rural Communities report appears tomorrow on www.ruralcommunities.gov.uk; more details on Community Land Trusts are at www.communitylandtrust.org.uk.

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