"A land use framework could help developers and planners make better decisions that benefit local communities"
1st December 2022
The UK is in the midst of a rural housing crisis. According to the latest Rural Cost of Living report, house prices are on average 39% higher in rural areas than urban ones (excluding London) – and a whopping 55% higher in rural villages and hamlets.
At the same time as people are being priced out of their communities, rising river pollution is now forcing many local authorities to impose long planning moratoriums. This effectively blocks new developments that could involve increased nutrients in an attempt to tackle dangerous levels of phosphates in our rivers.
It’s a frustrating situation for communities, planners and housebuilders alike – and one that highlights how competing commercial demands on our land can lead to complex problems that threaten ecology, agriculture, housing and the wider rural economy.
Merry Albright has a perspective from the very epicentre of this contentious debate. Creative Director of Border Oak, a sustainable housing and construction company based in North Herefordshire, she also co-Chairs the Herefordshire Construction Industry Lobby Group (a coalition of local businesses set up to campaign against the moratorium) and sits on the Wye Catchment Nutrient Management Board, the body in charge of restoring ecological conditions in the Wye.
Merry Albright, Creative Director at Border Oak.
The problem, she says, is that new housing is being penalised for a problem that isn’t theirs. “The housing moratorium was issued overnight, without warning. We were initially told that the phosphate pollution was 50% housing and 50% agricultural, but it later transpired around 23% was from sewage treatment plants treating existing homes and around 72% came from agriculture. It’s likely that new housing contributes a negligible 0.2%. Yet no new housing approvals have been issued for more than 3 years.”
For Merry, it’s disheartening, exasperating and complicated – and it’s having a catastrophic impact on the supply of homes, as well as local businesses, livelihoods and rural communities. In a report by the planning consultancy Lichfields, it was estimated that around 2,500 new homes in Herefordshire are on hold, including 1,000 which are Affordable. In terms of jobs, this means that 5,200 direct constructions jobs have not been created, as well as a further 6,300 up and down the supply chain.
And it’s exacerbating problems which already exist in local planning. “In its current form, it feels like the planning system is designed to be a barrier to growth. Rural housing has an important role to play in making rural communities resilient and sustainable – and to allow them to evolve and thrive.”
Part of the problem is the one-size fits all approach to rural housebuilding. “Often the shorthand for a rural housing development is to put a medium to large-scale development on the edge of a market town or village. But these big estates of housing are often from cookie-cutter templates that don’t do particularly well in terms of quality and performance. They’re also not very popular with communities and can throw up all kinds of infrastructure concerns. But they provide the majority of rural social homes, so it’s a complicated situation.”
Merry thinks the solution may lie in empowering more local decision-making and a focus on creative place making. “I strongly feel that you need to enable a community to grow and shape their own future aspirations – or you risk eroding the bones of rural places and the spirit of rural communities.”
Taking this approach, suggests Merry, means that existing communities could be more open to new housing developments: “We’ve found that when a lot of thought has gone into the design, the materials and the landscaping, that people are often more welcoming of new homes. The friction and resistance come when communities feel like they are having something alien imposed on them – rather than something designed to integrate with what’s already there. Most rural communities appreciate the need for housing, but they expect it to bring other social, environmental and aesthetic benefits.”
In practical terms, this could look like an abundance of trees and greenery, good connectivity, spaces for wildlife and nature and low energy, low carbon homes. Plus, some care and creativity in what the development looks like and how it works now and in the future. “Communities often feel divorced from the planning process”, Merry tells us, “and decisions are typically made by a planning officer based on rigid policy, rather than individual community needs and aspirations. There’s rarely collaborative dialogue to come up with something special.”
Phosphate in the River Wye has reached dangerous levels.
One viable solution Merry and her team have explored is the development of rural brownfield sites – previously developed land that’s not currently in use or not in best use. “I don’t think there are enough brownfield sites in rural areas to meet all the housing needs, but they are still a viable and sustainable option. The problem is, they can be very difficult to get through the planning regime as they’re not an easy fit for current policy and are not incentivised.”
Brownfield developments do, however, land relatively well with residents because they can actively improve the local landscape: “They’re very rewarding, but expensive, sites to develop. People tend to value the fact that you’re investing in a derelict site and taking an innovative, sustainable approach.”
A few years ago, Border Oak took on the development of an ex-industrial poultry site – and the response was fantastic. “We worked with planners and the local neighbourhood to come up with a scheme that everyone was happy with. We replaced the four poultry sheds with four custom build houses, where the residents design and specify their own home for their needs and budget. We also planted a lot of hedges, green verges, gardens and trees. It’s now a thriving residential site that sits in-between active farmland and orchards and other houses in the village. I think it worked because everyone had a bit of input into how it was designed.”
“Unfortunately,” Merry tells us, “it now wouldn’t meet current planning policy as it isn’t directly adjacent to the village boundary, so is a bit of a one off.”
Converting ex-industrial farming sites into thriving residential areas is a hugely exciting prospect. Not only could it free up a substantial amount of previously developed land for home building, it could also help some farm businesses move away from industrial agriculture towards more sustainable and regenerative types of farming.
A rural development by Border Oak.
But while it's clear that locally responsive developments have the potential to offer multiple benefits, Merry thinks specific policy doesn’t incentivise this type of development yet. “It’s a very worrying time for rural planning. We need all aspects of sustainability – social, economic and environmental – to be equally embedded throughout the planning system. And that will involve working with local communities to find the best solution for them, but also an honest conversation about the under delivery of housing and how we fix this.”
There also needs to be, she thinks, a better way to make decisions about land and enable a better understanding of how different land uses interact with one another. “A land use framework would give us certainty and help us plan long-term. We need recognise that developments in one village or area can have knock-on effects. Flooding, for example, can be exacerbated by a development miles upstream but the planning restriction is typically applied where the water lands.”
Does the need for more rural housing come into conflict with other pressures on land, like the need to produce more of our own food? Merry thinks these demands can be managed with the right approach. “On the whole the UK is undeveloped, so perhaps we need to expand our horizons about where to build houses – and reduce how many decisions are made purely for financial or business reason.”
"A land use framework could help developers and planners make better decisions that benefit local communities, while ensuring that schemes remain economically resilient." There are lots of demands on our land right now and there’s no reason why housing developments can’t meet many of these – like incorporating community orchards or allotment sites within them. Right now, that just isn’t happening.”
Merry thinks there also needs to be a shift in mindset. “Not all new rural housing developments should be feared. With some collaborative, creative thinking housebuilding can be more straightforward and less controversial. But policy needs to have the right tools to support new homes that are designed beautifully and built sustainably – and give local communities a voice. “After all,”, she says, “everyone needs a home.”