Rural housing and the pandemic: looking to the future

Lord Best, 09 July 2020

What will be the impact of coronavirus on housing in rural areas?

It seems likely that young people working or living in rural areas – perhaps with parents in council housing or in accommodation linked to a farming job – may find it harder than ever to find a place of their own nearby.

More townspeople appear to want to “escape to the country” after experiencing lockdown in more densely populated places. With our new willingness to work from home and commute less frequently, homes in the countryside seem destined to be more in demand. That sounds like a recipe for more local families being priced out and the gap between rural incomes and rural house prices widening.

At the other end of the age spectrum, older people who are thinking about downsizing from a home and garden that is becoming less accessible, more troublesome and more expensive, may well be having a change of mind. Anything remotely like a care home may be avoided at all costs and space and light, and access to fresh air and sunshine, have gained in appeal.

For families on lower incomes, greater insecurity of employment and perhaps the erosion of savings that might have funded a deposit, could make home ownership, and even shared ownership, a distant dream.

So, in the post-coronavirus era, it looks as if the tried and tested solutions for meeting housing need remain paramount. More homes for social renting in small developments that target local people, and a few purpose-built bungalows for older people to free up family homes, can make a huge difference for the village. This certainly deserves fuller recognition from MHCLG and Homes England.

Use of Rural Exception Sites remains an essential tool. And planning gain is invaluable as an addition to direct provision by social landlords. In the government’s efforts to ensure planning does not inhibit more development everywhere, we must not lose these precious opportunities to secure some homes for local people on the back of housebuilders’ rural developments. The current exemption of smaller schemes from Section 106 – which represent a majority of rural developments – continues to undermine provision for locals; this curtailment of Section 106 powers really should go.

And, while some mix of tenure in all rural schemes has value, a switch away from genuinely affordable renting to owner-occupation – even with discounts like First Homes – would fail to recognise the economic realities facing so many rural communities.

In so many ways, the coronavirus has shown up serious problems in our society. Not least, its after-effects seem likely to have repercussions for rural housing. Local authorities and housing associations – and those landowners and local housebuilders with a genuine interest in their communities – have already played a vital role in supporting rural neighbourhoods during the crisis. They will now need to stand together to ensure homes for local people, young and old, are not another casualty of this miserable pandemic.