With the Government looking to deliver greater powers to rural communities through the Localism Act and National Planning Policy Framework, how can rural settlements deliver housing, employment and a range of services? What does a living, working countryside look like? To build or not to build? It is a crucial time in terms of policy and decision-making about the future of rural places – Ivan Annibal & Jessica Sellick investigate.
'Living Working Countryside, The Taylor Review of Rural Economy and Affordable Housing', published in July 2008, set out a vision for 'flourishing, vibrant communities that will be genuinely sustainable'. It stated: "this country's rural communities cannot stand still. Change is inevitable whether development takes place or not, and the choices we make today will shape tomorrow's character of the market towns, villages and hamlets that make up our countryside" (page 6). The report contained 48 recommendations – from reviewing regulatory burdens and incentives placed upon local planning authorities which focus on short term delivery targets and development control (number 5) to clarifying the importance of a strong pre-application partnership between developers/business and local planning authorities (number 41). The, then Labour, Government agreed with and accepted nearly all of the Review's recommendations, seeing them in the context of the need to plan for economic recovery and for a streamlined planning system. Although the Taylor Review opened up positive opportunities for planning in rural England, more than three years on, and with a Coalition Government now in power, has the Review been placed on the shelf or is 'rural' moving up the policy agenda?
In November 2011, at Broxtowe Gardens in Guildford, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister launched 'laying the foundations: a housing strategy for England'. The strategy aims to tackle the housing shortage, boost the economy, create jobs and give people the opportunity to get on the housing ladder. It sets out a package of reforms to: get the housing market moving again; lay the foundations for a more responsive, effective and stable housing market in the future; support choice and quality for tenants and improve environmental standards and design quality. The Strategy is part of an attempt to break the current cycle in which lenders won't lend, builders can't build and buyers can't buy. But will the Strategy help unstick the housing market and make the dream of home ownership a reality for more people? Will the (big) lenders signed up to the scheme actually lend? Will the Strategy tackle the 700,000 empty homes across the country? How can we get more out of the existing stock as well as increasing the supply of (rural) affordable homes? Will it help the 'squeezed middle' who want to move on from their first home but who are unable to become 'second steppers'? And what is it that is actually constraining house building and/or occupancy – the planning system, a lack of finance? I offer three points.
First, the notion of a living, working countryside. Matthew Taylor acknowledged how the countryside was at a crossroads: being both a wonderful place to live and work but for many people country life remained challenging. This opens up an historic debate about what the countryside is. Whereas a long time ago it was a place where food, timber and wool came from and people subsisted off the land, when parts of England became urbanised and industrialised, the countryside was subsequently sentimentalised in literature, landscape painting and peoples everyday conversations as a "green and pleasant land". And while agriculture and growing food remains an important part of the country life/work, it is by no means the only important component of rural economies, with many people working for a diverse range of successful businesses.
This has led rural areas to become some of the most desirable and, therefore, some of the least affordable places to live in England. According to Defra, rural communities need affordable housing, accessible public services, and a thriving local economy yet their figures show the lowest house prices in rural areas are 7.6 times the lowest annual earnings, compared to 6.7 times the lowest annual earnings in urban areas. All of which means that rural development will continue to be a difficult task, with tensions between use and beauty and between people who own homes and people who want to live in the countryside. But this does not mean that the current ways of doing things could not be improved. For there are still people in the countryside who need jobs and homes.
Second, and with this in mind, the Coalition Government has promised to radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods the ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live. This includes proposals for a simple and consolidated 'National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)', which sets out economic, environmental and social priorities for England and explains how planning can ensure a pattern of development that matches these priorities whilst also meeting local aspirations. There has been a mazelike response to the publication of the draft NPPF– oscillating from proclaiming it a 'Not In My Back Yard' (NIMBY's) charter on the one hand, to a licence to concrete over the countryside on the other hand.
In the words of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE): "the draft policies threaten both the long term health of our countryside and sustained investment in urban areas, and seek to promote economic growth seemingly at any cost, rather than development that is truly sustainable", while the National Trust has argued that other countries that have embarked on radical deregulation of the planning system, such as Ireland, Greece and Spain, have been plagued by economic crises. What is at stake for these organisations is a concern that the NPPF's focus on a presumption in favour of sustainable development is a pro-development framework aimed at ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support long term, sustainable economic growth.
The relationship between the planning system and economic recovery, the environment and society therefore leads some individuals and organisations to be concerned that the Government is stimulating growth – any kind of growth – with knee jerk reactions. Whilst for some this has become a 'hands off our land' campaign, the NPPF does present opportunities for rural areas. The Rural Sustainable Development Network response to the draft NPPF welcomes its objectives to promote collaborative plan and local decision making, and to enable appropriate and sustainable development to improve the conditions for all communities, urban and rural. In this context, the NPPF could be particularly beneficial for rural places that have been written off by planners and other professionals as being unsustainable and therefore not given any allocation for development – if local people are not enabled to bring forward small scale development (e.g. housing, employment, work spaces) often their community begins to wither, resulting in a decline in local shops and services.
In attempting to reconcile these viewpoints, and in the words of the Rural Coalition's 'Rural Challenge' document: "a vicious circle needs to be broken and replaced by a virtuous one." So local planning, community involvement, affordable housing, the encouragement of new business opportunities, the provision of good schools, shops, pubs and other leisure facilities need to be seen not as separate issues but as interdependent parts of the necessary whole" (page 4).
At a citizen level, and more of a 'do it yourself' approach is Community Land Trusts (CLTs), which can play a key role in providing rural places with housing, acting as a key enabling mechanism to address local housing shortfalls locally, bridging the gap between social rented housing and working alongside other providers to ensure that a permanent stock of sustainable and affordable housing that remains in the community. The NPPF combined with the Localism Act (measures due to be implemented by April 2012) may deliver greater powers for rural communities to plan and ensure the delivery of housing and other developments and services needed in their areas.
Finally, at the heart of all the debates and government proposals being illuminated here, is finding ways to ensure that the planning system brings a positive, lasting legacy for rural places in which people actually want to live and work without (quite literally) concreting over the countryside. Although change is inevitable, some proposals for development in rural places will rightly merit refusal, because they would not provide sufficient benefit for the local economy, would damage local amenities or are in the wrong place. What makes a good development is a balancing act, and sometimes this is not possible.
Rose Regeneration has undertaken a variety of projects on rural economies and the countryside. These include: developing a rural vulnerability index for English Local Authorities and Scottish Towns, looking at levels of employment, job juggling and household income/vulnerability in rural England; economic impact studies of livestock markets; evaluating the impacts and achievements of community enterprises; and supporting community groups in running local services. We are presently working with communities in the Worth Valley to help them think through and develop their own capacity to be more sustainable and their contribution to the competitiveness of the Leeds City Region.