One unequivocal fact in the housing debate is the need for affordable housing in rural areas. Often ignored amid the monotonous focus of ‘housing crisis’ discourse related to urban areas, peripheral parts of the UK face huge struggles in the face of uncertain employment opportunities and the attractiveness of rural property in the UK market. The upcoming Housing and Planning Bill which has quietly navigated its way along the political channels to the point at which it is a seemingly an inevitable conclusion to a process which has seen sparse evidence of coherent public or political debate.
Within what could be deemed a generally contentious bill among those working in the housing industry, the most hotly contested aspect is that of the extension of the Right to Buy. Right to Buy has stood the test of time since its inception in the 1980s and is now proposed to be extended to a wide variety of different modes of housing provision, including housing associations and bizarrely including sectors such as co-operatives which were initiated in direct opposition to the principles of Right to Buy.
Of course it is nonsensical to be blankly opposed to the concept of home ownership, not least given its political resourcefulness among the electorate, and while being advertised as a ‘voluntary’ measure, the prospect for any individual or family of securing a huge discount on a property in an era of negative interest rates will be undoubtedly attractive given the upward curve of property appreciation in the last 30 years. However what is blindingly clear to those who operate in local authorities is that this measure will come at huge financial and social cost. Rural communities appear to be particularly poorly documented when it comes to the affordability crisis among those unable to yield the necessary capital to leap haphazardly on to that all important first rung of the housing ladder.
For instance in the recent debate on the Housing Bill in the House of Lords, Exmoor was cited as an example of an area characterised by idyllic countryside, prime for second home owners yet also inhabited by a local population who no longer work in industries such as agriculture but work on a seasonal basis often in low-paid ‘cash in hand’ jobs which renders them far outside the boundaries of mortgage lenders’ requirements. In such areas, building contractors charge a premium for the difficult accessibility to sites which are available for construction and property values are approximately 8 times average salaries, making the area arguably more unaffordable than London’s burgeoning housing market.
The details of the proposed Housing Bill extends the Right to Buy to Housing Associations and rural local authority housing for social rent. The percentage of affordable housing in rural areas stands at only 8% compared with 20% in towns and yet these proposed measures will result in the sell-off of housing stock which can then be painlessly sold on for profit after 5 years with no requirement whatsoever for the local authority or Housing Association to replace the home with another in the same area.
The flimsy promise of a ‘1 for 1’ replacement for homes sold off under Right to Buy is plagued with the caveats of the definition of ‘affordable’ housing which includes the government’s ‘Starter Homes’ which 79 councils across the UK tellingly regard as unaffordable. Hastoe Housing Association, one of the larger rural housing associations with 7,000 homes across 62 local authorities has been one to openly decline the offer of Right to Buy by central government, citing concerns that ‘the offer brings a serious risk that the current low volume of rural affordable housing will be further depleted.’
Young people are thus faced with the decision of remaining in the communities they grew up in unstable jobs or move on to local towns or cities where demand in house prices is comparatively lower. Along with numerous other side effects of this process, it results in the further emptying out of rural communities, inhabited purely on a seasonal basis or exclusively by the retired community. In order to alleviate the growing scarcity of affordable rural properties in peripheral areas of the UK, this Housing Bill must be heavily amended to avoid irreversible weakening to local authorities and housing associations who carry out such essential work for local communities. If the long term aim is to reform local councils then it is by allowing them to be proactive in the way they actively develop land through more innovative financing measures, not by impeding their path to recovery.