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The challenges of offering affordable housing in rural areas

Ensuring there is sufficient housing in rural areas is essential for economic growth, to help sustain communities and build a locally based workforce. This could also contribute to shrinking the wealth gap and help provide access to opportunities across the UK.

Earlier this year the government published its policy paper, ‘Unleashing rural opportunity’, which detailed its proposals and commitments to improving local communities in rural areas, including in particular through affordable housing provision. For instance, the government committed to developing a fund of £2.5 million to introduce a network of ‘Rural Housing Enablers’ across England, acting as ‘honest brokers’ between developers and communities, to increase the supply of new affordable housing. Additionally, the government expressed the need for further support for rural small sites for affordable housing. 

A new research paper prepared by University College London and the English Rural Housing Association highlights the growing complexity of providing affordable housing in rural communities. The key challenges include high building costs, local opposition to development and the migration of affluent groups from urban to rural areas causing land prices to rise. 

Over three decades ago, the ‘rural small sites exception’ was introduced in national policy, allowing for small sites on the edge of rural settlements (which would not normally be developed for housing) to be used for affordable housing. The research paper reiterates the importance of the rural small sites exception in tackling these issues but confirms that, to date, it has delivered relatively few homes to rural communities. 

Following research and analysis of various case studies, the research paper suggests a number of ways in which use of the small sites exception can be encouraged. These include early engagement and support from parish councils and incentivising landowners to bring forward their land for development purposes (e.g. by retaining an ongoing interest in the site). 

The government’s views should become clear from its annual rural report which is expected to be released later this year. The housing crisis remains a real issue as house prices continue to grow alongside the limited supply of homes. As such, proposals to improve the planning system to better serve the countryside, which makes up 90% of the UK’s land mass, would be warmly welcomed.   

During 2021/22 only 548 homes were built using the rural exception site policy and most of these within a handful of local planning authority areas.

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