A House in the country

Affordable housing is a contentious issue, but, says Jim Keoghan, it's vital that we do something to help keep our rural communities alive...

DURING the last five years UK house prices in rural areas have risen on average by 89 per cent. Although this is similar to the 90 per cent rise in urban house prices over the same period, the increase has been felt more acutely in rural areas, because the average property price is 6.7 times average annual earnings compared with 5.6 per cent in urban areas.The people most affected by these price rises are low earners. Unable to afford to buy a home in their own village, they are compelled either to rent, which in financial terms can be an equally unappealing prospect, to move to a more affordable area in nearby towns or cities or to stay at home and live with their parents.

In Hampshire, like much of the south east, the county's nearness to London has played a role in inflating prices. Added to this, some areas, such as the New Forest and the Isle of Wight, have also suffered from a rise in the number of people buying holiday homes, although countywide this problem is not as significant as it is in nearby Dorset and Devon.

Out of reachAccording to Christopher Napier of the Hampshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), while London wages and second home buyers are contributory factors, of far greater consequence is the lack of affordable housing being built in rural areas.

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"What the countryside needs is more specific affordable housing projects that offer good quality homes that those on low incomes can either rent or, through shared-ownership schemes with the housing providers, gain some equity in the property," he says. "This is much more important to the needs of villages than building more market housing. Although these market estates and developments can include an element of affordable housing, by and large the majority of what is built is beyond the reach of most low earners."Christopher feels that although Government policy aims to redress the overall lack of affordable housing in Hampshire, the way it goes about it doesn't help those on low incomes who want to stay either in the village they grew up in or somewhere nearby. "When you look at the main housing schemes planned now for Hampshire, and other counties affected by the South East Plan, it's mostly about size," he says. "We have thousands of planned homes affecting two large swathes of the county, one in South Hampshire and the other in the north around the Western Corridor and Blackwater Valley. Aside from the environmental damage this will create, this approach fails to target specific local communities in rural areas, where low-earners wish to have an opportunity to rent or buy a home in their own village."Ultimately you could ask why any of this matters. There are lots of us who can't afford to buy or even rent our ideal home, so why should a proportion of the population have their houses subsidised?

Knock-on effectsFiona Hood, interim strategy and development manager at Hart District Council, says, "If the changes in the housing market we have seen over recent years continue, then it's possible that the economic viability of villages will diminish."Young people living with parents will have to move out of the village to find accommodation. Schools may then have to close for lack of numbers, health facilities be restricted and bus services cut. Young people also help support other local services such as post offices and shops. In the absence of more affordable housing, villages as we currently know them could cease to function."Evidence of this is already apparent. Hampshire has lost around 80 post offices since 1999. Across the county many villagers have been compelled to establish their own community shops as the existing outlets were no longer viable as private concerns, and many villages are no longer served by any bus service at all. At the moment, any decline in Hampshire's villages has been largely restricted to these kinds of commercial service but in the future it is not impossible that such things as schools and doctors surgeries will be affected. "The problem with implementing more affordable housing is that there are so many barriers working against us," says Gail Long of Community Action Hampshire (CAH), a countywide support body for the community sector, which helps facilitate the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. "We have just produced a report into this issue which suggests that the problems include the time it takes to produce rural schemes - typically just a few properties, and the fact that the longer the scheme takes, the greater the costs are.

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"There is also the difficulty and cost of finding affordable land, specifically with limited local and central government funding, and the attitude and perception of locals. Many people accept the need for affordable housing just as long as it is not in their village."Local opposition could be seen as 'nimbyism' but equally it can be viewed as a failure on the behalf of local authorities to make an effective case for more affordable housing. Communities often oppose developments because they fear the impact upon the physical environment and worry about the increased strain on local medical and educational resources. This is despite the fact that any development can be planned with the aesthetic concerns taken into account and extra resources can also be requested on any scheme to ensure that the infrastructure of the village is sustainable in the long term.

The right partnershipAlthough at the moment demand for affordable housing still exceeds supply, several local authorities have changed the way they are organised in an attempt to tackle this problem. The Hampshire Alliance for Rural Affordable Housing (HARAH), which consists of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, East Hampshire District Council, Hart District Council, New Forest District Council, Test Valley Borough Council, and Winchester City Council as well as The Housing Corporation and CAH, was formed in 2005 to address the need for affordable housing in the villages of Hampshire...

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Find out more

Community Action Hampshirewww.action.hants.org.ukTel: 01962 854971

CPRE Hampshirewww.cprehampshire.org.ukTel: 01962 843655admin@cprehampshire.org.uk

Hampshire Alliance for Rural Affordable Housingwww.harah.org.ukcontact@harah.org.ukTel: 01962 854971