Increasing affordable housing in the countryside with Rural Exception Sites

A new report has revealed that communities which embrace use of the Rural Exception Site planning policy can significantly increase the delivery of affordable homes in the English countryside, while maintaining the community’s local character.  

The report, Land, Landowners, and the Delivery of Affordable Homes in Rural Areas, by researchers from UCL and the English Rural Housing Association outlines the housing affordability issues facing rural towns and parishes.  It goes on to highlight how greater use of the already-established Rural Exception Site policy could help deliver much needed affordable homes.

Rural Exception Sites were established as a national policy in 1991 as a mechanism for delivering affordable homes on small plots of rural land that would not otherwise be granted permission for housing development. Developments on these sites are required to prioritise affordable housing for people with a connection to the local community. The policy has since been expanded to allow small numbers of market sale homes when required to ensure the delivery of affordable housing units as well.

However, the policy has not been widely used since its inception. In 2016 and 2017, only 14 of 91 rural authorities constructed any affordable homes on these sites, with 37% of those constructed in Cornwall alone.

The researchers outlined a number of different reasons that the policy hasn’t been more widely adopted, including a general lack of understanding of the policy, local landowners unwilling to sell land for site development, poor wording of policy seeking sites, and opposition from local council members and residents. The researchers stress that many of these obstacles can be overcome with greater available information about the programme.

Though urban areas have drawn most of the attention in discussions around the ongoing housing affordability crisis, rural areas are also facing a similar predicament. A combination of issues – including the emphasis on conserving villages as they are, limited rural amenities, environmental protection restrictions and increasing property prices – have limited housing development in rural regions. These issues, combined with lower incomes in these areas and an increase in urban migration to the countryside, mean that the demand for rural housing often outstrips supply, driving up costs beyond what local residents can afford.

By highlighting the potential of Rural Exception Sites, the researchers hope to increase awareness of the little-used policy and provided a roadmap for its increased use.

Their five recommendations include:

  • Supplying every parish council with information about the Rural Exception Site policy
  • Training Rural Housing Enablers to raise awareness about Rural Exception Sites
  • Developing guidance to incentivise landowners to release land for Rural Exception Sites
  • Creating a national programme highlighting the policy
  • Producing a positive model for Rural Exception Site development, showcasing what the homes could look like.

Martin Collett, Chief Executive of English Rural, said:

"Our aim is to turn the spotlight onto rural exception sites, initiating a nationwide dialogue that underscores the transformative potential that they hold for the countryside and those that live there."

Chief Executive of the RSN, Kerry Booth is hopeful this will raise awareness of the potential for local communities:

“Firstly, thank you to our members who contributed valuable insights into the planning world and why Rural Exception Sites aren’t being used to their full potential.

“The report highlights something that the RSN completely agrees with, local people are best placed to lead discussions around planning and homes for their communities.  I hope to see more rural communities embracing their Rural Exception Sites.”

Research Fellow Dr Phoebe Stirling (UCL Bartlett School of Planning) said:

"This collaborative study has shown the value of exception site development to communities, families, and rural economies. Landowners are critical partners in bringing forward sites, but a range of individuals and groups need to come together to achieve project success. Our research highlights how this can happen.”


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