Comment Blog 19 June, 2024

The need for rural housing should not be ignored

Sean Eke

Last week, some of us were lucky enough to read the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem manifestos (a combined 333 pages of polices and promises). One key takeaway was a universal commitment to more housebuilding.

All three manifestos included commitments to housing targets of 300,000+ per year. Research suggests that the UK has a housing supply shortage of more than four million homes. Addressing this shortage by building more will be critical to addressing the UK’s housing crisis.

But where will the houses be built?

All three parties committed to housebuilding primarily in urban, rather than rural, areas. The Conservatives would fast-track the development of brownfield sites in the 20 largest cities, raise density levels in inner London and create locally-led urban development corporations. Labour would also fast-track the development of brownfield sites alongside plans to release low-quality ‘grey belt’ land from the green belt on the edge of cities for development and create new towns. The Lib Dems would encourage the development of brownfield sites with financial incentives and create ten new garden cities.

The only specific commitment in any of the three manifestos to rural housing was the Lib Dem’s pledge to encourage the use of rural exception sites, a currently underutilised mechanism for delivering affordable homes on small sites not allocated within a local authority’s development plan.

The focus from all three parties on “ensuring more homes get built where it makes sense, like in inner cities” is understandable to a degree. The demand for housing is much greater in urban areas, where just under 83 per cent of the UK’s population lives.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the growing rural housing crisis. While the average house price in England as a whole is 8.4 times an average income, the average rural house price is 16 times an average rural income. This has had a knock-on effect upon the demand for social housing and the prevalence of homelessness. The number of rural households on local authority housing waiting lists increased by 31 per cent between 2019 and 2022 versus an increase of only 3 per cent in predominantly urban areas, while over a similar timeframe rural homelessness has grown by 40 per cent.

Addressing this rural housing crisis is just as important as addressing the wider UK housing crisis. Rural industries such as farming and tourism contribute billions to the UK economy. This contribution could be severely restricted if people cannot afford to live in these areas, as we increasingly see in parts of the country like Cornwall and the Lake District.

Part of the answer may well lie in demand-side measures tackling the proliferation of second homes. In Cornwall between 2015 and 2021 there was a 661 per cent increase in the number of homes listed for short term holiday lets, homes which may otherwise have been listed for longer term tenancies.

However, part of the answer must also lie in supply-side measures aimed at encouraging housebuilding in rural areas. Where is the equivalent of ‘gentle density’ for villages whose current options are primarily either no building or the imposition of large housing estates on their outskirts?

The YIMBY argument has won on a national level. It must now be won in rural areas.