The debate around the Government's draft National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) is in danger of losing sight of the needs of those who are most likely to be affected by it: the residents of rural communities.
A 2010 analysis by the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), the independent watchdog which I chair, indicated that the housing built in rural areas over the past decade will only partially meet the increasing annual demand for housing for local rural households.
Many young people are moving out of rural areas because there is no affordable housing. At the same time, the number of second homes in the countryside, used for only part of the year, is increasing. This makes rural communities less sustainable, and drives services and businesses into more profitable urban locations.
Concerns about building on green belt land in the relentless pursuit of growth may be valid, but through the Localism Bill, provisions are being introduced to ensure that councils will be able to protect the green belt as part of their local plans. This important check, if carried out properly, will be crucial in ensuring that the countryside we all cherish is preserved, while also assisting the people who live in rural areas to thrive.
However, the CRC has two key concerns about the localism agenda and the NPPF.
First, the framework suggests that in the interests of sustainability, new housing should not be built in communities distant from rural services. There is no benefit in this for those villages which have seen their shops, post offices, pubs and schools close. Once services have gone, the framework seems to imply that there is no prospect of them returning.
Second, there is also no mention in the framework of exception sites – land provided in perpetuity for affordable housing. Rural social landlords, planning to build new dwellings for local families, are uncertain whether the cost of such sites will increase if their exception designation is lifted. I have asked the Government to clarify this point as a matter of urgency.
We need an injection of sense into this debate. The Government should clarify what is meant by the presumption in favour of sustainable development in order to mitigate concerns about unreasonable new building in rural locations. Few accept that young people brought up in rural areas should have to move out because they are unable to afford to buy a property in their home town, village or hamlet. Small developments of 10 or 12 affordable dwellings for local people are surely desirable, and will not change the character of the places in which they are built.
Rural communities should be encouraged to develop robust neighbourhood plans, as envisaged in the legislation, which allow for this kind of development. The neighbourhood plan for a rural community should prevent excessive development precisely because the people who draw it up are locals who want to maintain the character of their areas.
We need to use the new planning framework to get the balance right between environmental concerns and the needs of rural communities. As Rural Advocate I took a non-partisan view and I would be happy to help bring together the different sides in this debate.
Dr Stuart Burgess chairs the Commission for Rural Communities and was Rural Advocate from 2006 to 2010