Why we need a long-term plan to fix the crisis in rural housing

Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani , 01 July 2024

Rural Housing Week is a time to celebrate the many wonderful rural communities up and down the UK. But it’s also a time to remind ourselves of the challenges facing those same communities. Between 2020 and 2023, rural social housing waiting lists grew by 20%, compared with 14% in urban areas. And the numbers don’t always convey the very human pain of communities disrupted, young people unable to put down roots, and long-time residents squeezed out by rising living costs.

As the Church of England’s Lead Bishop for Housing, I’m determined to see this trend reversed so that our rural communities can thrive. I’ve seen the challenges first hand: my diocese of Chelmsford is one of the most varied in England, stretching from the London Borough of Newham all the way to the north Essex coastline. The housing shortage is often perceived as starting and ending in cities, but the rural communities in my diocese are suffering too.

We know that there is a shortage of housing, especially affordable and social housing, across the board. Rural communities can face particular challenges pushing through much-needed housing developments. But it’s not just a question of quantity. For our rural communities to flourish, we need housing which is high-quality, affordable, and adapted to those who need it.

In 2021, the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community recognised this fact. Coming Home, the final report from the Commission, recommended that quality housing should have five attributes: that it should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.

I believe that this vision of good homes for all is possible and would make a real difference in rural communities. But it won’t be easy to achieve: it will take time, political courage, and a cross-party commitment to a housing system which works.

We need:

  • A joined-up approach: The deep roots of the UK’s housing crisis demand a coherent response. Too often, the government of the day has responded to the housing crisis with short-term, piecemeal policies. We can only hope to end the crisis through a system-wide approach which takes into account all areas, all tenures, and all parts of our housing system.
  • To think long-term: Need is urgent, and progress is essential. A strategy must be long-term. The housing crisis has been deepening for decades and it will take just as long to reimagine and recreate a just housing settlement for everyone in England.
  • To achieve quality and community as well as quantity: Rural communities know better than anyone the value of close-knit communities. The homes we build need to be high-quality, suited to those that are living in them, and they should enable flourishing relationships.

With the Archbishop of Canterbury, I was recently pleased to launch the Homes for All campaign, which set out a strategy to change the conversation on housing. It’s endorsed by the National Housing Federation, among others. The report doesn’t offer another set of policy recommendations, but instead argues that we need a unified vision for what ‘good’ looks like for England’s homes, a strategy to achieve the vision, and a robust accountability mechanism to hold successive governments to account.

For an ambitious long-term strategy to outlast the push and pull of short-term politics, we need the commitment of all our main political parties, and a governance mechanism that reflects this. Our report suggests that a possible accountability mechanism could be to create a Housing Strategy Committee, modelled on the Climate Change Committee, to provide annual reports to Parliament on progress and to hold the government to account.

The Church of England is playing its part as well. Spurred on by the Coming Home report, the Church Commissioners have been seeking to accelerate their delivery of rural affordable housing across the country. They were actively progressing 19 rural exception sites in 2023, with the potential to deliver 250 homes, and 55 more sites are in the pipeline. Several dioceses, like Truro and Leeds, are also bringing forward a number of sites for affordable housing. But the Church can’t deliver change on its own: it needs everyone working together.

The crisis in rural housing is urgent. But we can’t fix it without a long-term, cross-party political commitment to courageous action. This Rural Housing Week, I urge all parties to rise to the challenge, and commit to long-term, coherent action to transform our housing system.