Keeping villages alive

PUBLISHED: 17:55 14 March 2011 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

The village green

The village green

House prices may be falling but they're still too high for many low earners whose presence is vital to community life, says Jim Keoghan

Princess Anne's recent visit to two Rural Housing Trust village developments in Folly View, Hampstead Norreys and Dunmore Meadow, Brightwalton marked the climax of two pioneering projects.

Rural Housing Trust area programme manager, Alison Read, explains: "It's fantastic that Princess Anne came and fantastic for the village to celebrate what they have achieved with us. People are always so thrilled after they have met her."

Both the Hampstead Norreys and Brightwalton housing projects were developed by the charity, Rural Housing Trust, of which Princess Anne is president, on rural 'exceptional' sites where planning permission is granted on the condition that the homes are affordable and for people who have ties to the village.

Just ten years ago the average price of a home here in Berkshire and the surrounding areas was 121,000. Today, despite the recent drop in prices, the same home will cost you 273,175.

The South East region is one of the most expensive places to live in Europe. The problem for people living in Berkshire and the Chilterns is that even within the context, the cost of living here is extremely high. Take the Chilterns for example, this is the most expensive local authority to live in within the UK, with an average house price of 448,635.

Although price rises in rural areas have been similar to those in urban areas, the increase has been felt more acutely in the countryside because the average property price is 6.7 times average annual earnings compared with a ratio of 5.6 in towns and cities.

The people most affected by the recent trends in rural house price growth are low earners. Unable to afford to buy a home in a local village, they are compelled to either rent, which in financial terms can be an equally unappealing prospect, move to a more affordable area in nearby towns or cities or stay at home and live with their parents.

"This is a real problem here in Berkshire, says Arlene Kersley, Rural Housing Enabler for the Community Council for Berkshire. "There are other counties that are worse off, such as those on the coast or which contain National Parks as they have second homes to contend with too. However, things here are still pretty bad.

"Proximity to London has played its role in inflating prices but I think of far greater consequence is the lack of houses being built in villages, specifically those which are affordable. There simply haven't been enough affordable homes built in the last twenty years."

For Arlene, part of the problem is that although Government policy, under the aegis of the South East Plan, is aiming to redress the overall deficiency in the quantity of affordable housing in Berkshire, its method of doing this fails to accommodate the need for smaller-scale, low-impact affordable housing in our villages. Many of the thousands of houses planned for the county are scheduled to be built on brownfield sites within our towns, meaning that if low-earners want their own home then they will have to leave their village to obtain one.

Ultimately you could ask why any of this matters? Many of us can't afford to buy or even rent in our ideal location, so why should a proportion of the population have their houses subsidised?

"If more affordable housing isn't built then in the long-term this will undermine the viability of our villages" says Arlene. "Young people living with parents will have to move out of the village to find accommodation. The result is that schools could then close due to lack of numbers, health facilities could become limited and bus services cut. Young people also help support other local services such as post offices, shops and pubs. Each village needs a mix of ages to function properly and if the younger generation is forced to leave because they can't afford to live there any more then the viability of the village is threatened".

Evidence of this is already apparent. Many villages have lost their post offices, a number of pubs have closed and in one village, Bradfield Southend they have even started their own community shop as the existing outlet was no longer viable as a private concern. At the moment, any decline in our villages has been largely restricted to commercial services but in the future it is not implausible to see this extend to the non-commercial infrastructure.

According to Alison Read, area programme manager with the Rural Housing Trust, a local affordable housing provider, a lack of affordable housing could also impact upon the social fabric of our villages. "Losing community facilities, such as post offices obviously undermines the community feel of a village as it is in these places that local people tend to mix. Added to this, if young people are compelled to leave the village, then elderly and vulnerable members of the community lose part of their support network. Equally, those same young people lose the support of family and friends when they choose to have children and are forced to rely on nursery care instead. What makes a village a village, that sense of close community, is totally undermined if for economic reasons a significant proportion of that same community is forced to move away."

When it comes to getting these homes built Christina Hill Williams, Chairman of the Berkshire branch of the CPRE feels that the biggest problem is obtaining land. "Most parish council plans already flag up the need for affordable housing, without being site specific. Compulsory purchase powers do exist but in recent years authorities have rather tended to vie away from exercising them. So we are left in a position in which the only way land is obtained is if that, once approached by a rural housing provider, a landowner is then willing to sell at a lower price than they would receive from a developer building conventional housing."

Even if someone willing to sell the land is found, that is only part of the problem solved, as Jean Fox, Rural Housing Enabler for Buckinghamshire Community Action explains; "In the Chilterns District, because of the planning restrictions imposed by the green belt and within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, getting affordable housing built is more difficult than in areas free from this type of protection. This is one of the reasons why in this area we sometimes have to use other means than building to increase affordable provision, such as returning empty properties back to use and encouraging people to let out spare rooms."

Once land and planning permission is obtained, Alison Read says that there are still problems to be faced. "Opposition in the local community is definitely a key problem. So called 'nimbyism' (not in my back yard) often gets derided but people care about their community and are just worried about changes. In light of this we make a constant effort to allay any fears that a community might have with regard to a planned development. We work with the parish council, have open days, and try to explain the scheme through parish newsletters and the local press. What we find is that most people worry that we are going to build more houses than promised and that what is built will not be in keeping with local character. This is of course not the case and once people are reassured, most are happy for us to continue. We have a good track record of delivering small sites of affordable housing throughout the area, such as our soon to be completed developments in Leckhampstead in West Berkshire and Chalfont St Giles in the Chilterns. The places that we have helped have all acknowledged that these schemes have, in the long-term, been of great benefit in keeping the villages vibrant".

Affordable housing is small on scale, produced in conjunction with the community and vital to the long-term viability of villages. In many ways it is also environmentally, physically and socially more desirable than market housing. Mixed housing attracts young people and enables locals to stay near family and friends, two factors which should ensure that villages remain vibrant and sustainable in the future.

Further Information

Rural Housing Trust

CPRE Berkshire

Community Council for Berkshire

Buckinghamshire Community Action

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