Over the weekend the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy has called on the Government to develop a rural strategy and help realise the potential of rural economies.  What are the key findings and planning implications for this?  My comments on the snapshot "important topics for planning" are in bold italics.

Absence of data 

The absence of data on new housing in settlements of fewer than 3,000 people is a significant weakness in the ability to assess the success and sustainability of rural communities. The Government must explore means of gathering this data, make greater efforts to identify housing shortages in smaller rural villages and, where possible, work with local authorities and housebuildersto identify opportunities to develop new homes in village locations. 

Or… There are lies, damned lies, and statistics – but if we didn’t even ask, how can we legislate for the problem?

Housing for older people 

The Government should also introduce stronger policies to support the sustainability and adaptability of rural housing for older populations, including making provision for new homes to be constructed to Lifetime Homes standards, and supporting energy efficiency measures to reduce the cost of heating and ease fuel poverty.  Echoing the Budget promise for a Future Homes Standard.  Will the writers of that standard make “country-proof” policies for the areas of the countryside with over four million households still designated “rural-fuel poor”?

Local authorities should also ensure that sufficient housing for older people is allocated through local plans. Irwin Mitchell's review of Elderly Persons Housing Allocation Policies; albeit now 2 years old found that less than 10% of the UK’s Local Authorities had both an elderly persons’ housing planning policy and allocated development sites for such housing and that most of those that did were urban not rural. The House of Lords’ evidence does not find things to be improving.

Affordable housing / Rural exception sites / Land value capture 

The affordable housing unit threshold policy does not work for rural areas. There is little evidence that requirements for affordable housing contributions made small housing sites unviable for development in the past. The Government should provide a full and comprehensive exemption for all rural areas from the policy to limit affordable housing contributions on small sites. Local authorities should be free to work with developers to seek the necessary level of affordable housing contributions on all new housing sites to help meet the fullest range of rural housing needs.

Rural exception sites are an important contributor to rural affordable housing, but evidence suggested that they are not yet meeting their potential, with delivery being heavily concentrated among a small number of local authority areas. The Government should also undertake further research to understand why rural exception site delivery is so concentrated and so poor across much of the country.

There is also a wider challenge of land values in relation to affordable housing delivery. Because the grant of planning permission can be so lucrative, rural housing sites often command very high prices which lead to the exclusion of affordable housing as the cost of the land makes it unviable. Increasing the supply of affordable housing in rural areas will continue to prove difficult unless fundamental action is taken which either reduces the jump in land values typically arising from development permission or which captures and apportions that gain. The Government should establish an inquiry to examine this question within the next six months and should ask that inquiry to report back with policy recommendations within the following twelve months.

I have grouped these 3 headings together as they interlink so clearly. The countryside is not for everyone but it remains a highly desirable place to move to. The Government has already changed the guidance on viability assessments so that the price actually paid is not relevant for failing to accord with relevant policies (such as the provision of affordable housing) and emphasising a push towards existing use value plus a premium. It may be that quite what that premium is needs clarity in policy but it is ultimately a question for a surveyor/valuer and if the policy makers interfere too far then the “notional willing buyer” will disappear from reality and those communities will have no opportunity to expand. On top of that the role of market housing in enabling rural affordable housing should be highlighted together with the role of good design in integrating market and affordable products and promoting communities where the tenure of one’s home is an unknown and irrelevant to ones role in the rural community.  Should a rural exception site be 100% affordable or simply a higher than policy rate of affordable provision.  

Sustainability 

The National Planning Policy Framework makes some welcome changes to support the rural economy, particularly with regard to viability assessment reforms, and in its new references to the rural economy and rural housing. It is also welcome that the document states that planning policies should identify opportunities for villages to grow and thrive, making clear that housing in smaller villages without local services is not necessarily “unsustainable”. There may still be scope for stronger support for new housing in small settlements as a means of supporting rural economies, however.

All too often, in practice “sustainability” definitions and scoring criteria are reinforcing the negative and closing samller settlements down. The CLA Policy Briefing - Making Rural Communities fit for the Future is an excellent of the effects of settlement hierarchy scores but by example village facilities need customers in just the same way that the customers and residents need those facilities. It is a cart before the horse argument to expect the facilities to always be in place before permitting further housing.

When I worked in rural Lincolnshire in the public sector I was the Councils lawyer on a large DECC application for a 50MW plus wind farm. At one point the inquiry process faced delays as the inquiry venue couldn’t get approved by Whitehall -the Council was suggesting a golf club venue just outside the District boundary and a 20-30 drive away from the application site. As those regularly involved in inquiries will appreciate a suitably equipped venue is better than one which just happens to have a view of the appeal site from the window but has only just been connected to running water and won’t have Wifi for another 10 years. The delay from Whitehall was due to the venue not being “well connected to the affected community by public transport” and the struggle for a Londoner to understand that 6 buses a day was well connected in a rural area and that the objection groups had already set up car sharing groups.

As the Lords have quite rightly observed rural areas are different. The cynic in me may add that the clue is in the title – the Town and Country Planning (Acts); successful towns need planning in entirely different ways to countryside and rural communities. Detailed Local Plans can do this (whether they in fact do is for a more detailed discussion) however all too often national policy statements are town centric and then applied to countryside locations.