To truly prosper, communities need the skills and confidence to make the most of the resources available. Prosperous communities have placemaking at the centre, a theme championed by housing associations who focus on place shaping principles. When it comes to rural communities prospering, they face challenges from scale, connectivity and limited diversity. The lack of affordable homes is a key limiting factor, with only 8% of homes in rural areas classed as affordable compared to 19% in urban areas.
To be clear, that does not mean that rural communities cannot prosper. Evidence shows the contrary: that their resilience and entrepreneurial culture leads to proportionately more businesses successfully flourishing. During the pandemic, villages have proved their ingenuity by reimagining support services and rediscovering local supply chains. Importantly during this time rural communities benefitted from more skills, as working patterns changed and the accepted rural-to-urban commute pattern was paused.
I am not an economist but neither am I someone who will defer to ideas where founding arguments disadvantage one characteristic over another. Real value is measured in more than just efficiencies and cost. But this has not been the direction of social and economic policy. Rural communities suffer disadvantage because they are not understood. If as a nation we are going to look at prosperity fairly, we should focus on enabling all communities to thrive.
The pandemic has shown just how connected and reliant on each other communities are. This is especially true for the town and country, the latter acting as the national resource, supplying food, access to nature and increasingly renewable energy solutions.
The rural target included in the Affordable Homes Programme was welcomed by rural housing associations. At 10% of delivery the target was less than most of us would have hoped for, knowing that the spend in grant terms remains lower. The hope is that this target will increase the interest in a supply of affordable rural homes.
These homes will help to address the acute shortage of affordable accommodation in the countryside, which suffers some of the most extreme challenges considering the income to property value ratio. A scenario made worse by the higher costs associated with rural living and the absence of any alternative options more readily available in better connected urban communities.
Predictions are that pressures on rural housing supply will increase more severely as working practices change post pandemic. The demand for rural living will go up. Access to space and nature has become more prized and a digital awakening has shown how we can achieve more things remotely; in a way that is kinder to the environment, offers the potential for a better quality of life and is less reliant on office-based working.
The challenge for affordable rural housing providers is to make sure that enough affordable rural homes get built to improve the diversity of the countryside, supporting a balance of income and age groups. Working in this way will keep vital support networks together. The homes built will make sure that essential workers have a decent and safe home, within their local community. The investments made will support local services, boosting the rural economy whilst enhancing national economic sustainability as well. Most importantly, the people that live in affordable homes provided by housing associations will possess the skills and resources that the will enable rural communities to prosper.
Our homes have never been more important to us than they have been during the coronavirus crisis. For some people, home has been a sanctuary. For others, it has been a prison. Everyone deserves a safe, secure, comfortable place to call home. Not just now, in the middle of this crisis, but always.
Investing in social housing makes this possible. It will also boost the economy, create jobs and improve people’s lives when our nation needs it most.
That’s why we’ve launched Homes at the Heart, a national campaign and coalition calling for a once-in-a-generation investment in social housing.