Country Houses

With an urgent need for more houses in the UK, rural communities need to play their part.

The need for more housing in the UK continues to make the headlines as the population rises. A local government report found that around 250,000 new homes are needed a year; but national figures show that only around 140,000 are being built.

The countryside has a role to play in meeting the demand and rural communities are increasingly involved in decisions about what, where and how many houses will be built. There is a specific need for rural affordable housing because of the competition from commuters, retirees and second-home owners, which has resulted in house prices being 26 per cent higher on average in rural areas than in urban areas.

In his role as chairman of the Rural Housing Policy Review Group, Lord Richard Best reported that: “Even given the low national targets for new affordable homes, the fair share for rural areas (relative to population) should be no less than 7,500 homes a year. But in 2013 we built only 2,886 affordable homes in rural areas.”

This August the government published a Rural Productivity Plan, which recognised that the lack of affordable housing is “a particular constraint to labour and entrepreneurial mobility”, and has a 10-point plan to increase the availability of housing in rural areas.

These include measures for local authority plans on the delivery of starter homes; help for villages in establishing neighbourhood plans; and a review of the current threshold for agricultural buildings to convert to residential buildings.

Jo Lavis of Rural Housing Solutions and a member of the Rural Housing Policy Review Group, says that whatever the government’s plans, the key to successful rural housing development is community involvement.

“There are three factors that are essential to encouraging the local community to be supportive: the new houses must be available and affordable to those who live and work in the community; the houses must be of the right character and size; and the development must be the right size for that particular village.

“As far as the latter goes, up to 20 units is usually the maximum, with 12 to 15 units seen as ideal,” says Jo.

The right mix of housing

Jason Beedell, of Savills Research, agrees that sensitivity to the needs of the community sits at the heart of successful rural housing projects.

“Often, volume house builders produce developments that are wrong for the community both in terms of scale and the type of housing provided. Villages tend to need a mix of housing, including: affordable homes for young people who want to stay in the community; live/work units for newcomers; single-storey housing suitable for older people looking to downsize, which in turn frees up bigger homes for families; and then larger four- and fivebedroom family homes.”

The Flete Estate at Holbeton, Plymouth, is one such proposed development. Here, the project involves three sites with a mix of housing and amenities, including affordable homes and live/work units which, it is hoped, will encourage newcomers to bring new life to the area.

“Live/work units are increasingly a component of rural housing developments. With modern IT links, rising fuel costs, a desire to reduce carbon emissions and maintain a better work/life balance, there has been an increased demand and need for people to work from home,” says Steve Briggs of Savills Planning.

More facilities for the village

“Increasingly we are working alongside parish councils to ‘knit and stitch’ new development into the fabric of the village,” says Steve. “There has been a move away from building new estates on the edge of a village towards developing in a way which brings a range of benefits to the heart of the village,” says Steve.

This is the case with a current project in the village of Pontesbury, Shropshire, that Steve says is, “a good-sized village lacking somewhat in facilities”.

“The local authority originally wanted 16 or 17 new homes but once the plan went to the local community, it was clear there was a desire for a bigger, more comprehensive scheme. The revised scheme included 60 to 70 homes, a new small supermarket, green space areas and a day nursery and went through very quickly because of the community support.”

Build new or convert?

Generally, converting existing buildings tends to be more expensive than new builds and, as the onus is on affordability, cost remains a strong deciding factor.This doesn’t mean correctly managed conversions cannot be successful though, says Steve.

“Conversion of existing buildings, for example redundant farmsteads and barns, has the advantage of finding new uses for buildings of traditional, distinctive character appropriate to the local community.

“The Crown Estate’s Upper Clavelshay Farm in the Quantock Hills contains barns within the complex which will form part of a new, five-dwelling live/ work community that marries historic features with contemporary design.”

Architecture and the use of local materials to ensure new developments sit comfortably alongside vernacular housing remains important, says Steve.

“Good design means the local community will accept contemporary housing where there is judicious use of local materials and features.We worked on a small village housing scheme in Hemyock, mid Devon which included affordable dwellings and market dwellings; the houses included brick feature work and slate roofs to reference existing dwellings.”

Jo confirms that community engagement at every stage is crucial to a smooth planning process and acceptance of more contemporary designs.

“Treating the local community as an equal partner at every stage of the process is so important, particularly where decisions about design and cost are concerned. Most people will accept decisions if they feel they understand the reasoning and have had the chance to have their say.

“It also gives developers the opportunity to demonstrate the benefit of more radical contemporary designs that significantly reduce hot water and heating bills, for example,” she says.

Mixed messages

While there is much to be positive about in rural development, both Jo and Jason still have their concerns. “While the planning process will become more efficient under the new government plans, the critical issue of affordable housing is still not being addressed,” says Jason. “Specifically, the government is trying to implement a policy so developments of fewer than 10 units do not have to include affordable housing. Also, housing association rents are to be reduced by one per cent per year for the next five years.”

Jo also points out that the government wants to extend the right-to-buy scheme to include properties managed by housing associations. “This means new affordable housing in an area could be lost within a matter of years.”



Key contacts

Philip Gready

Philip Gready

Executive Director
Rural, Energy & Projects Division

Savills Margaret Street

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470


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