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Sustainability drive hurts rural housing
Planning – 1 September 2006

South West councils are up in arms over policies that restrict the supply of housing for rural people, reports Mark Smulian.

A dispute over house building in Dorset has homed in on an obscure problem as regional planners strive to implement the government's policy of concentrating development in urban areas.

Ministers have taken this route because brownfield land is more readily available, long-distance car commuting can be discouraged and the local economy receives a boost. But what happens when a council's allocation of new homes is too low, rather than the more familiar complaint of being too high?

Some rural areas believe that they cannot remain viable without enough homes to accommodate people of working age. This spring's Affordable Rural Housing Commission (ARHC) report picked up on this point (Planning, 19 May, p1).

"The squeeze on rural housing has been further compounded by the approach taken to sustainable development, from national through regional to local level," the commission complains. "We wholeheartedly endorse the concept of sustainable development. But in some regions the way this has been interpreted has actually undermined the sustainability of some rural communities."

Some rural areas face a moratorium on house building, the report notes. In others, the amount planned is too low and some countryside settlements are erroneously assumed to be beyond saving. "Decision-makers have tended to take a snapshot of communities, judging them to be sustainable or unsustainable at a single point in time, rather than looking at how all communities might be made more sustainable in the longer term," it points out.

Planners and policy-makers have embraced sustainability. But have the effects on rural areas been properly thought through? A number of councils, particularly in the South West, think not. North Dorset's problems have been exacerbated by the Government Office for the South West's decision to call in a planning application that would have provided 670 new homes in the small town of Shaftesbury, 180 of them affordable.

Like many rural areas in the south, North Dorset faces high house prices and low wages. Prices have been driven up by retirees' spending power, second homeowners and people arriving from the London area who can work from home or commute over long distances. The limited funding available to housing associations has meant that the affordable homes supply largely relies on section 106 deals.

So if the supply of market homes falls because of planning constraints, the supply of affordable homes falls with it. North Dorset's housing needs survey points to a requirement for 468 affordable homes a year, but Housing Corporation grants will provide just 147. Filling the gap as the allocation for new homes falls is difficult, maintains district council policy director Janet Rees.

"Our affordable housing is linked to the amount of market housing, and we do not want to see such emphasis on sustainability," she insists. "It is a theoretical argument that development should be concentrated in cities and it damages areas like this. The South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) has dug its heels in, although people feel strongly that if you constrain supply you push up prices."

Rees notes that Dorset faces "a really serious problem of ageing, with severe under-representation of the 25 to 35-year-old age group". Younger people in market towns cannot afford to pay the prices that prevail when they are driven up by what the council sees as an artificial housing shortage wished on it through the rigid application of sustainability policy.

North Dorset is a hung council, but its Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups have united in support of a motion on its problems with providing affordable housing in the context of sustainable development. The statement (see panel) angrily summarises the concerns of rural authorities that fear insufficient development. North Dorset has resolved to work with neighbouring councils to "educate and change the thinking of both local and regional government".

There are similar stories in other councils in the region. "We are doing 450 homes a year but under the regional plan it will fall to 350 a year," says Mendip District Council development officer Phil Miller. If 25 per cent of that is affordable, then once existing permissions feed through you are looking at 50 homes a year. That is nothing near what is needed."

One of the worst affected councils is Purbeck, an area of quaint villages, high house prices and pervasive environmental designations next to the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation. "We have protested because our options to alleviate rural housing problems are limited anyway. It is a huge problem here," says community policy manager Mark Sturgess. "If the regional spatial strategy were applied with some flexibility it might be okay, but if it is rigid about driving development into urban areas, we are in trouble."

Purbeck's protests have made little headway. Sturgess thinks that the switch to regional plans from the old structure plan system has made it harder for small councils to make themselves heard. "It is difficult to make a point to a regional assembly in the way that you could to a county council," he complains. "The problem is that sustainability as applied is an unsophisticated policy. It needs a lot more local solutions to deliver on a broad front."

The ARHC's strictures on the rigid application of sustainability policy came as music to the ears of Trevor Cherrett, head of planning at the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC). Set up by the government as an offshoot of the Countryside Agency, the CRC has a remit to be a "rural advocate, expert adviser and independent watchdog for rural communities".

It has been trying to get a hearing for concerns over rural housing provision for some time. "We certainly want the point accepted that sustainability should give proper consideration to rural areas and planners have got it wrong," says Cherrett. "We have been doing a scan of regional strategies.

The rhetoric about rural areas is there but it does not translate into housing numbers."

He points out that some villages are kept alive by the demand created by commuters. Those travelling by train cause "hardly any adverse impact on sustainability", he claims, while drivers may cause environmental harm but are good economically for the countryside. Policies for the South East and South West are broadly similar, the CRC's research shows. But objections to them have been stronger in the South West, perhaps because there is less sensitivity about overdevelopment.

Cherrett fears that regional development agencies and government offices, rather than spatial planners, have driven a policy stance that deems villages that have lost a proportion of their population and services unviable and is not prepared to do anything to revitalise them. He argues that the policy of directing virtually all new homes to urban areas for sustainability reasons is "causing great damage".

It might seem incongruous to hear the head of planning at a "rural advocate" call for more building in the countryside. But Cherrett is unapologetic.

"I am not saying there should be development all over the place and I am not against urban regeneration," he insists. "But there is a tension between people who want to go to live in rural areas and policy-makers who want to keep them in urban ones. This is not going to regenerate the rural economy."

Countryside Agency board member Alison McLean picked up these points in a speech to the Action with Communities in Rural England conference earlier this year. She made it clear that the CRC is keen to challenge many of the assumptions and policies applied to development and service provision in rural England.

"At the risk of over-simplification, the operation of planning, housing and much service delivery appears to be based on the view that rural communities, especially the smaller ones, are fundamentally unsustainable," McLean comments. She describes the arguments usually mounted against higher rates of rural development - countryside protection, reduced car journeys and critical mass of services - as "seriously flawed".

McLean maintains that the prospect of the countryside being concreted over is "grossly over-exaggerated" and sees no need for "a general presumption against development, which has been the characteristic stance of post-war planning". In her view, improved public transport and latest technology's potential to provide remote access to services are "more relevant to environmental, social and economic sustainability than simplistic decisions about the location of development in urban areas".

This rural assault on the accepted tenets of sustainability policy has not been confined to the South West. Eden in Cumbria, South Holland in the Fens and the East Riding of Yorkshire have complained of similar problems. But the high house prices, low incomes, protected scenery, picturesque villages and wide disparities of wealth put the South West at the centre of the controversy.

SWRA policy manager Keith Woodhead says he has held lengthy discussions with North Dorset representatives on the rural housing issue. "We feel that we have gone as far as we can go and have taken account of the issue they raise," he maintains. North Dorset has been given a slightly higher allocation than it might have had in the first ten years of the regional strategy but a lower one after that, he adds.

Woodhead suggests that rural local authorities that want more homes allocated are relying on a more optimistic view of economic growth. "We want a better balance between the rural economy and housing," he explains. "We say that increased housing should be justified by economic growth. If it is higher than expected it might be possible to revise housing figures upwards."

The dispute over Shaftesbury is a case in point. The council saw a development that would help to underpin the town's viability. But the regional assembly "does not want Shaftesbury to become a remote commuter settlement", says Woodhead. "There is never a perfect fit but we like to see the two elements come together, with greater economic growth before there is huge growth in housing."

He cites the fate of Shaftesbury's neighbour Gillingham, which he contends has become a commuter settlement for Bournemouth. "Gillingham has a large area of housing, but apart from a couple of supermarkets and estate agents there is not much economy. People take themselves to live in semi-rural locations but drive around to hang onto parts of their urban lifestyles elsewhere. It is always going to be difficult."

The grievance raised by rural councils and the CRC has no easy solution because it concerns two policy objectives that run in contradiction. On one hand, the government wants development concentrated in urban areas because it sees use of brownfield land and lower commuting levels as desirable.

On the other, it wants to promote a thriving rural economy. The two policies conflict if either is pursued rigidly to the exclusion of the other.

Sustainability, in the sense of concentrating development in towns currently appears to have the upper hand. Will the result be a series of overcrowded towns and dying villages, with people who grew up in the countryside forced out by house prices? Or will it be stable growth in settlements of all kinds? Calls for more locally based solutions may appeal to many, but can local solutions be identified and implemented when policy is driven at a regional level?

NORTH DORSET RURAL HOUSING STATEMENT: Conservative and Liberal Democrats unite to lobby government

This council believes that national and regional government policies on housing will let down local people and communities by:

- Failing to meet known and measured local housing requirements, which are preponderantly for social rented housing.

- Failing to recognise that the affordability gap in rural areas will widen as a result of the restricted housing numbers in the regional spatial strategy. It has overwhelming emphasis on the principal urban areas as opposed to market towns and villages.

- Failing to recognise the role of market towns as the hubs of sustainable communities in rural areas.

- Failing to recognise that these policies will work directly against the stated policy of supporting "vital villages".

- Failing to recognise the needs of a district in which house prices exceed the national average by 15 per cent and workplace earnings fall 24 per cent below the national average.