Levelling up rural communities

Selaine Saxby MP, 08 July 2022

Ever since I was elected as MP for remote, rural, coastal North Devon in 2019, my mission has been to find ways to level up the pockets of severe deprivation in my beautiful constituency. For me, levelling up has been about trying to gain high speed broadband as the primary infrastructure investment, but particularly post-pandemic, we have found ourselves in a housing crisis that is impacting rural ways of life. House prices are increasingly out of reach for local families who work in the constituency and with far too many property sales becoming second homes or short-term holiday lets, our housing market is out of balance.

Creating affordable homes within our villages is vital to their survival but too often, planning viability sees rural elements of larger developments not fully completed, or community land trust schemes are thwarted due to funding challenges. Some of these projects may now be further threatened by the prospect of the extension of Right to Buy to housing associations. Included in this proposal is an important promise to replace the homes sold under right to buy one for one and like for like, but this does not consider the fact that villages cannot accommodate endless replacement properties. Furthermore, the whole point of building new rural affordable homes is to support the needs of rural communities.  Rural landowners may be more reluctant to release land for social homes to be built on, if those homes can easily be purchased through Right to Buy and sold on. If, as in my constituency, those properties are almost inevitably destined to become second homes or short-term holiday lets, it rather defeats the object of building the property in the first place.

The imbalance in so many rural housing markets has been made worse, as the pandemic has increased the value associated with countryside space, exacerbating the affordability crisis. We need to find new ways of providing affordable homes for rural people, such as allowing farms to redevelop outbuildings into homes for their own workers, and enabling villages to build homes for their own families. Otherwise, as we are already seeing in coastal communities, these rural villages will become ghost towns in winter.

Whilst the Levelling Up White Paper rightly highlights the need to ensure our communities are beautiful places to live, local people should not be priced out of the market by those wealthy enough to afford multiple homes. The white paper does not adequately address the demise of long-term rentals, or how we will actually increase affordable properties in rural locations. Or indeed what is affordable; when wages are so far below the national average and property prices so far above, 80% of market rates is nothing like affordable.

Housing associations have a vital role to play in addressing this – but development is struggling to keep up with the demand. The CPRE, the countryside charity, reported that demand is increasing at six times the rate of supply and it will take 121 years to clear the backlog. Developments right down the Devon and Cornwall peninsula suffer from lack of resources, slowing the rate of development even further and impacting on viability. North Devon at present has only an 18% affordable housing percentage in new developments.

In addition, there are the concerns about how affordable housing will be paid for in future with the demise of the Section 106 agreements. Across the UK almost 50% of new affordable housing is funded through Section 106. In rural areas that percentage rises. In Devon, for example, 75.7% of new affordable housing built in 2020-21 was via Section 106, and for social rented homes it rises to 86.2%.

The lack of affordable housing in most of rural Britain is creating a quiet housing crisis with priced out youngsters moving out. At the same time, more retirement and holiday communities are developing without any of the services, facilities or staff available to support these ageing populations in remote locations. The reasons our visitors came – our pubs, restaurants, attractions – are far less sustainable businesses with no one left to run them.

As we look to level up, we need to recognise that rural Britain is not a holiday park concept. These idyllic communities thrive through their relationships with their environment, and the families that have lived there for generations. This is not to say they should be preserved in aspic, far from it - they need to become more productive, hence my passion for improving connectivity. Rural communities suffer not only from poor access to broadband but also mobile coverage. Far too many people, like me, struggle to make mobile calls at home, or live with the perpetual circle of doom on their computer screens!

We have to find a way to redress the housing market and improve connectivity in our most desirable rural locations to enable every generation to live and work there, as without these basic amenities more and more villages will cease to be communities.

This blog was published as part of Rural Housing Week 2022.