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Opinion: New homes can be the saviour - not the death - of the countryside

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Opinion: New homes can be the saviour - not the death - of the countryside

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities, Development

Opinion: New homes can be the saviour - not the death - of the countryside Opinion: New homes can be the saviour - not the death - of the countryside

By Karen Armitage, chief executive, Stafford and Rural Homes

It’s hard to build homes in the countryside. Most would argue rightfully so.

The need to protect the greenbelt is unquestionable, and not even the staunchest of housing campaigners is suggesting we do away with England’s green and pleasant land in favour of a mass roll out of homes.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that we have a rural housing crisis – and without quick and effective intervention we are in danger of sleepwalking out of a crisis and into a disaster.

It is always big news when plans for new homes in rural areas are announced. Some call it NIMBY-ism. Some call it community action. Either way, the result is the same.

The lack of affordable homes being built is driving up house prices and forcing younger generations away from the communities they grew up in.

A new report from the National Housing Federation out today shows that average house prices in rural areas are 11 times the average salary, with homebuyers needing a 150% pay rise to afford a home.

This all leads to ageing communities that will be increasingly dependent on support services, transforming villages and parishes beyond recognition, and making them unsustainable.

As younger generations leave, the infrastructure that holds these communities together comes under threat, with shops, pubs, bus services and schools all facing the potential of closure.

For housing providers like Stafford and Rural Homes (SARH), Rural Housing Week provides a vital opportunity for us to state our case and raise the profile of this issue.

There will be much talk of countering NIMBY-ism, quicker planning processes and cutting red tape – all of which are essential.

But we also need to take the debate beyond the backyard to show how new homes, delivered in the right way, can be the saviour – and not the death of – countryside communities.

Last year, SARH, along with our development partner Housing Plus, took the first steps in a new build programme that will eventually see us build 300 properties across our neighbourhoods by 2017.

But these plans are about far more than simply building as many homes as possible wherever we are able to access land.

We wanted to make sure that every property we built related directly to a specific need within a community - creating small pockets of carefully designed homes that ensure the longevity of our villages.

This has included working closely with our parish councils to identify a number of rural exception sites.

These site allow us to bring forward developments of affordable homes on pieces of land that would not usually gain planning permission for housing, providing we meet strict guidelines and there is a proven need for more properties within the community.

SARH brought in a rural housing enabler to act as an independent expert and carry out a rural housing needs survey, which identified the exact number and style of properties that were needed in our villages to ensure that they can continue to thrive.

In Gnosall, a parish with around 2,500 houses, the survey showed the need for 13 new shared ownership properties and 17 homes for affordable rent, which have now been built at Lowfield Lane, along with six bungalows, which have been delivered at separate site at Monks Walk.

Each home has been carefully designed to ensure it is completely in keeping with the surrounding village.

The research has allowed us to create a development programme that is based on science, not speculation. We know exactly how many homes we can build and where they are needed, with all details considered, from how many bedrooms each home would need, to the type of tenure offered.

These developments are already redressing the balance of the community in Gnosall, creating smaller homes for older residents looking to downsize, while building and freeing up affordable family homes for the next generation.

A quick chat with any of the residents who have moved into one of our new properties leaves you in no doubt that this is a genuine success story. Families have been able to remain together, and those who had given up hope of homeownership have taken their first step on the property ladder.

Social landlords operating in rural communities have been campaigning hard for the need to build more of the right homes. But the danger is that we can focus too much attention on the hurdles, rather than championing the benefits of the end result.

No communities, rural or urban, from New York to Gnosall, can survive if they remain static. Our challenge is to make sure that our rural neighbourhoods are given the opportunity to evolve at the right pace, allowing them to survive for the next generation while retaining the unique feel that can only be found in an English country village.

Gnosall is proof that, with a bit of science and a commitment to sensitively designed homes, bricks and mortar can provide the answer.

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