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Country strife
Local Government Chronicle – 16 July 2004

A rural move might appeal to affluent city dwellers, but it doesn't make life easier for those already there, says Mark Smulian

The English love their fantasies of village life. Although most people long ago lost any personal link with the countryside, the vision of living in a small village remains popular.

In a pleasant rural or coastal environment, urban people can fulfil, either full time or just at weekends, their dream of the good life.

Just one problem intrudes - the influx of affluent people can destroy the village life they came to enjoy.

A large concentration of wealthy new arrivals, whether retirees, home workers, commuters or second home owners, poses councils a range of problems, all driven by market forces and none with obvious solutions.

On the face of it, an influx of relatively affluent people looks like a boon - their properties are well maintained and they bring in money.

But there are serious downsides. The arrival of urban money in rural housing markets drives prices well above what most people who grew up locally can afford, with the result that villages become ghettos of wealth.

Retired newcomers will eventually need care services, but those who might provide these are missing because they cannot afford to live locally.

Village school rolls can slump because most affluent incomers are not families with children, and local families cannot afford the new house prices and so move elsewhere.

Local services also find themselves in trouble. Incomers will also be accustomed to the choice available in towns, and drive to supermarkets to load up with shopping.

Thus, village shops and services find themselves with a declining customer base and go out of business.

This problem of villages losing their economic base is compounded if there is a large proportion of second homes, since their owners are normally absent except at weekends and village services see too little year-round trade.

A further complication can be an influx of commuters who have sold suburban properties and used the proceeds to buy in an area where tracts of protected landscapes mean the housing supply is constrained by a lack of building land. Up go the prices again.

The Countryside Agency's annual State of the Countryside report warned in June about villages that become "increasingly exclusive, comprising only wealthy households".

Rapidly rising prices mean that 36.8% of rural home owners have to devote more than half their income to their mortgage, up from 33.2% in 2002.

The agency found that access to most services had worsened with 90% of homes more than 4kms from a cashpoint, 86% the same distance from a doctor and 78% from a supermarket.

Gloucestershire CC leader Peter Clarke (Lab) says the Cotswold and Tewkesbury areas "are reaching a crisis that nobody knows how to deal with", having seen house prices driven up relentlessly by second homes, retirement and commuting.

"In social services and adult care, it is extremely difficult to get staff in the east of the county as people cannot afford to live there and wages are traditionally low," he says. "We try to recruit locally and then train them on the job."

The county has many village schools with as few as 25-40 pupils, and supporting these is becoming problematic.

As the number of resident children falls, the poor state of rural public transport makes it difficult for children from elsewhere to take advantage of what are often good schools.

Mr Clarke says Gloucestershire's partial solution has been to cluster four or five village schools to share expertise, "but we will have to look at them sharing resources soon, so we might have one school but key stages one and two split between different villages", he says.

Depopulation through second homes and smaller households means villages often have no shop, pub or school, and a high proportion have no doctor in easy distance.

Adrian Holloway, head of housing strategy at Cotswold DC, tries to juggle low wages and high house prices.

Cotswold's housing studies have shown a high proportion of elderly residents and so there are "significant issues of access to services and care support", he says.

This has led to a growing concern about how public-service workers can be found when they cannot afford to live anywhere near the people they serve.

"We have not hit the buffers yet, but they are not far off," says Mr Holloway.

Cotswold has lots of villages with well under 1,000 residents, which would once have been quite self-contained communities but have now lost shops, post offices and doctors.

Great Barrington is a good example, says Mr Holloway, of a village that is "taken over by weekenders and is deserted from Monday to Friday", and consequently supports no services except a pub.

Cotswold has a small key worker housing programme. But its main innovation has been to fund affordable homes for sale to local people at below market value, with a resale covenant that they must be sold on at the same discount.

The covenant is permanent and the council offers to save sellers' estate agent fees by nominating a buyer from its list of local workers. This means it can give residents a strong incentive to sell to local people, although it cannot compel this.

Within its area of outstanding natural beauty, it can use a specific power that new homes must be sold only to people living and working locally.

In Norfolk, the rural and coastal environment is also a big draw with the retired, 'back-to-the-land' and long-distance commuting fraternities.

Norfolk CC corporate resources director Paul Adams says the high property prices have "a significant impact on recruiting care assistants and [securing] affordable housing for staff is an increasing issue". The county's district councils agreed to put the extra money raised from cutting second-home council tax discount towards local strategic partnerships' objectives, which in most cases includes low-cost homes.

North Norfolk BC leader Simon Partridge (Lib Dem) rates affordable housing as "the crucial issue, as prices are beyond the reach of most residents".

With an average weekly wage of 325, the standard 3.5 mortgage multiple does not go far in North Norfolk, and particularly not when 5,000 homes - 10% of the total - are second homes.

Much of the coast is an area of outstanding natural beauty and together with the adjacent countryside pulls in the tourists who are the mainstay of the local economy.

Even if the money was available, the council has few opportunities to build affordable homes because any encroachment on the countryside would damage tourism and provoke opposition from the large numbers who depend on it.

North Norfolk has a medium-term problem in what Mr Partridge describes as "unsustainable villages".

"Most have lost their employment sources and are becoming settlements of predominantly retired people," he says.

"Because of second homes you do not get young families, so there are no children and no schools and no young people, and so no jobs and no one to provide services."

Turning villages back into vibrant communities is one of the council's main objectives, but the leader admits, "market forces are against us - it's a vicious circle".

Case study: Purbeck DC

Purbeck DC is beset by high house prices and a lack of key workers. It is considering the drastic step of applying to the ODPM for powers to "pull up the drawbridge and say any new building will be for local needs alone," says chief executive Paul Croft.

This would mean that all available building sites would be designated for affordable rent or shared ownership for local people in housing need, a group whose size would easily take up the whole supply.

Purbeck has one of the country's largest concentrations of second homes, reaching 30% in some villages.

"At such a high percentage there are profound effects that are not limited to falling school rolls, where the county council is looking at some quite stark closure options," says Mr Croft.

"There is an inability of families to stay together in the countryside and the creation of a rural diaspora in the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation, which has cheaper accommodation. Families get fractured and the grandparent support network goes."

Purbeck's problem is not just house prices - almost the whole borough comprises protected landscapes so it cannot build its way out of its housing shortage.

Mr Croft says: "It is a double whammy with large pressures on the infrastructure and nowhere to expand when all around you is a no-go area.

"We struggle to find new sites to build homes even just to meet local need, never mind demand."

This problem is illustrated by the planning inspectorate's rejection of Purbeck's plan for a new village at Holton Heath, on grounds of environmental impact.

"Our members feel the inspector got the balance wrong between people and the environment," he says.

Purbeck's serious consideration of the 'drawbridge' option shows the crisis position of councils caught in the high house price/low wage trap.

"We could end up with a wealthy aged population with no one to look after it, living in something like a huge gated community."



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