The solution to a rural housing shortage? Putting power in the hands of communities
28th February 2023
The English countryside is famous the world over for its pastoral beauty and centuries-old traditions. But for thousands of rural communities across the country, this rose-tinted vision of the country idyll couldn't be further from the truth. The countryside is in crisis – and it’s changing fast.
Many can find neither work nor affordable housing and are forced to relocate to areas where they have few connections and support networks. Flooding is becoming a fact of life – despite the risk to life and livelihood – as rural communities bear the brunt of climate change and changing weather patterns. And the cost-of-living crisis is disproportionately affecting rural communities, with residents facing a triple burden of higher heating and transport costs, while also earning a lower income.
Flooding in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, in 2020.
At the same time, the landscape is changing as competing demands on land continue to be addressed in isolated silos, exacerbating the toll on rural life. New housing developments with poor public transport links, industrial farming sheds that empty into rivers, and commuters constantly disrupted by flooding train lines are just some of the issues at play.
Cambridgeshire ACRE is one of the many charities across the UK that’s supporting rural communities through these challenges, identifying the often-hidden needs in communities and responding with both long- and short-term support measures – like helping communities navigate planning or environmental rules.
Kirsten Bennett is their CEO. What does she see as the most critical issue facing rural communities right now? “Obviously some people can’t afford food or heating, so we need to tackle that right now. But otherwise, it’s housing.”
Kirsten Bennett, CEO of Cambridgeshire ACRE. Photograph by Cambridgeshire ACRE.
In the past few years, affordable housing stock in rural areas has been decimated by second homes, the holiday rental market and an exodus from cities, sparked by a pandemic-induced work from home culture.
Despite this, local communities are finding creative solutions to the problem – using their knowledge of the local area and landscape to find ways around an overloaded planning system that tends to benefit larger, more commercial developers over smaller ones.
Cambridgeshire ACRE’s Rural Housing Partnership, for example, brings together housing associations, local authorities and the community to build on Rural Exception Sites. These are small areas of land, usually just outside a village boundary, that wouldn’t get planning permission for commercial housing developments, but which are sold for affordable housing projects at well below market value.
Homes built on rural exception sites will then be sold or rented to people who have a connection to the community or village, like those who already live or work there.
It’s a great initiative when it works, but Kirsten points out that rural exception sites are hard to come by. “It’s very difficult to find these kinds of sites. Most landowners want to sell their land for the best price they can get, which is unsurprising. Finding the right kind of land at the right price really is an issue – particularly at a time when the government’s putting tremendous pressure on local authorities to create growth and build houses.”
The target set out in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, for example, was for 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s – but this is looking increasingly unlikely.
Cambridgeshire ACRE’s other programme is community-led housing. “We support groups of people to come together, decide what kind of housing they want and land they want to build on, and make it happen.”
In many cases, community-led housing involves the creation of a community land trust, which are democratic, non-profit organisations that own and develop land for the benefit of the community.
They can also bring other services and resources into community ownership. “Community land trusts don’t just own land for local housing needs, they can offer community-owned energy or transport. At its core, it’s a way of managing and planning locally led land use that reflects the community’s needs and ethos.”
Members of the Great Staughton Community Land Trust. Photograph by Cambridgeshire ACRE.
They also help empower communities to become efficient and organised entities. “These Trusts help a community to grow their assets, their learning and their leadership. They build resilient, sustainable communities – especially in rural areas.”
One housing development led by the Great Staughton Community Land Trust, says Kirsten, is only months away from being completed. “It offers affordable housing to local families in the area after we found that many of them were being priced out of the area.”
Those paying social rent can expect to pay around 60-80% of the market rate. It’s a huge win for both the trust, the future residents and the wider community.
Why aren’t more people self-building through community land trusts? One major problem is time. It can take years to find the right kind of land, apply for planning and start building – which is much too long for those facing an immediate and critical lack of affordable housing options.
For Kirsten, it also comes down to a lack of awareness and community buy-in, and a planning system that doesn't cater for community-led projects. “We need to start spreading the word that you can and should form community land trusts and build your own houses. But to do that we need to get everyone involved in community matters and right now that’s not happening. We need a tool – something like a land use framework – that puts local knowledge first, helps communities navigate the planning system and brings everyone to the table.”
The Great Staughton Community Land Trust development is just months away from completion. Photograph by Cambridgeshire ACRE.
Is there pushback to community-led housing? “Yes, there’s sometimes a bit of nimbyism. But more and more, people understand there’s a housing crisis and cost of living crisis going on at the same time – and they’re happy for new housing developments that address these issues.”
It’s a view echoed by Richard Kay, Strategic Planning Manager of a local planning authority. “It’s very rare for a community to welcome development – the only places you do is where local community is genuinely involved in decision-making.”
Locally responsive and smart design is key, Kirsten adds. “We ask people, do you still want this village to exist in 2050? Because if you do, you need to adapt. And that’s where good design comes in – green space, facilities, landscaping. It has to be well thought-through – and so many rural developments aren’t.”
A community-led housing development in Cambridgeshire. Photograph by Cambridgeshire ACRE.
Kirsten is hopeful that locally led development and decision-making offers a real and viable path forward for rural communities in the face of multiple and overlapping crises. But she also acknowledges that housing is just one part of the problem.
“It’s hard because there are, of course, other crises going on that require land. We also work with farmers, conservation groups, climate change projects and so on – and they also need land to try and carry out the work they’re doing. There are too many competing pressures right now, even within one community.”
“If we’re going to tackle housing and other crises in rural areas at the same time, we need a better way of bringing local leaders, landowners and members of the community together to make these decisions.”
Find out more about a Land Use Framework and our work in Cambridgeshire.
More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.