Is Productivity the Panacea for Rural Communities?

I’ve been reading, and nodding along, with a variety of articles recently about the difficulties of living in a rural community. By last Thursday I was itching to add my two penneth worth to the discussion. However I saw that George Osborne was due in the South West that very day to announce a new 10 point plan for rural areas. So I waited (more in hope than anticipation).

There is little new in the 10 point plan, much of it had already been announced, and it’s clear from the title that the plan is focused on boosting productivity. Is it likely this aspirational higher productivity will provide an answer to the concerns facing rural communities?

The document recognises some of the challenges, better broadband, mobile phone connectivity, transport, education, training and housing. That’s great, but what do we make of the proposals to tackle the problems?

Just as an example, the issues with transport in rural areas are not about dualling the A303 or about improvements to the London – Penzance main line, although don’t get me wrong these are very welcome. The transport issue for rural communities is how do people without the luxury of private transport get to school, to work, to the doctors, the hospital, the shops, the bank(!) when the already limited public transport services are being further decimated by cuts in Local Government funding.  Of this there is no mention.

The continuing disappearance of services from rural communities, eg public transport, shops, post offices etc can be attributed, in part, to a reducing local community being replaced by a largely commuter society who choose to, or at least have the ability to, access services outside their immediate community. This leaves the less fortunate, the young, the old, the less mobile, the single parent, the lower income earner increasingly more isolated and ultimately forced out. And that brings me back to one of the key issues in the whole picture - housing.

If we want our rural communities to remain vital, vibrant, diverse and, ultimately, healthy we have to provide ‘affordable’ housing options. The Government continues to claim it understands, but proposal after proposal only tends to aggravate the situation. We had the proposal to exempt small developments from affordable housing contributions (now over-ruled in the High Court), which would have slashed affordable home development in rural areas. We still have the proposal to ‘sell off’ Housing Association homes under Right to Buy. This means that affordable housing in rural communities will be sold off rather than being held as affordable in perpetuity, and is never likely to be replaced within the same rural communities. The latest proposals, contained in the 10 point plan, to encourage Starter Home development in rural communities also, surely, misses the point completely.

We are offered a ‘contribution’ towards the overall 200,000 Starter Homes across the whole of the country will be in rural areas. How many Starter Homes in rural Devon does that equate to?

Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with Starter Homes, but the danger is that they will replace the development of Affordable Homes, which are what rural communities desperately need.

  • Starter homes are restricted to first time buyers only and buyers must be under 40 years old. Other potentially needy families are therefore excluded.
  • Starter Homes are protected from re-sale at market value for 5 years only. Meaning that after 5 years they can be sold at full market value and therefore cease to be ‘Starter Homes’ or affordable. Affordable Homes can be retained as ‘affordable’ in perpetuity.
  • Local Housing Needs Surveys consistently show that the principal need is for affordable homes for rent. Building Starter Homes for sale does not meet this need.
  • The price of Starter Homes at up to £250,000 (at 80% of full market value) already puts them out of the reach of lower income families living in rural areas. In consequence these homes intended for local people will be occupied by those from outside who can afford the price. With an Affordable Home a family could potentially be looking to purchase just 40% initially, paying rent on the remainder.

The shortage of affordable housing has been highlighted in a Cabinet Office /Defra discussion paper, as amongst the most significant challenges for the countryside. Come on Government, reconsider Right to Buy and introduce suitable exemptions for rural properties and look at your proposals for Starter Homes and ensure that these do not impact adversely on the development of truly Affordable Homes in rural communities.

 

Greg Davies

Operations Director

Devon Communities Together

25th August 2015