6 July 2020: Rural housing is more than bricks and mortar

By Charlotte Brace, Special Projects Manager at Stonewater

For those of us working to keep ‪#RuralCommunitiesTogether‬, Rural Housing Week is a great opportunity to explore the common challenges and rewards of developing this type of scheme and how further progress can be made to deliver more, much-needed affordable rural homes.‬‬‬

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During my three years working as a Development Manager for Stonewater, I worked predominantly across Somerset and Dorset. In this particular area of the country there is a high demand for affordable rural housing and so I was fortunate to oversee a mix of sites across my patch, including a number of rural exception sites.

As a result, I’ve developed a real soft spot for delivering homes in rural communities and it also contributed to the reason I became known as a bit of a problem solver by my colleagues.

You see, when you work in development, the focus understandably tends to be just on the bricks and mortar of a site. As much as I enjoy that element, I love seeing first-hand the impact on the local community of the homes that we’re building – despite this not always being as straight forward as we’d like.

Dedicating time

At Stonewater, rural housing is seen as very worthwhile and that the purpose greatly outweighs any of the various challenges that may crop up along the way. However, it is also understood to require a great deal of focus, time and effort.

It was this recognition that led to the decision to have someone (me) dedicated to the more complex and time consuming schemes that don’t necessarily deliver a large number of homes or the healthiest return financially, but do offer a lifeline to many local people across our country’s market towns and villages.

Now, my role is centred around resolving the challenges that we often face, when developing any new scheme, not just rural, to make sure they come to fruition.

Thinking innovatively

In rural housing, being able to support local people by enabling them to stay living in the area where they grew up, work or have support networks is incredibly rewarding. But, as I learned very early on, it also requires perseverance and agility.

A lot of this work involves investing the time early on to explain exactly what the intention of the scheme is, who the homes will benefit and allay any initial concerns about the building of new homes.

For example, one of the projects on my to-do list right now is a rural exception site that is in the green belt. I’m at the stage of the project where I would usually be consulting with the Parish Councils, local residents and the local authority, but given the current restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 our traditional public consultations aren’t able to go ahead.

Rather than see this and other similar sites stalled, I’m now exploring different ways of engaging with the local community – such as hosting virtual public consultations and virtual site visits using drone technology for example.

Gaining support

Despite my love of working with local people to bring much needed affordable homes to their local area, possibly the biggest challenge I’ve found with rural exception sites is actually getting local support and buy-in from the beginning; often the first step is to address some of the common misconceptions around affordable housing generally.

Resolving these concerns, talking through proposals, as well as answering any questions raised by the local community is so important to pave the way for a new rural scheme.

By taking this approach you will be able to overcome any potential barriers associated with this type of scheme it also hugely increases the sense of satisfaction when you see the first spade in the ground, and then when the first resident moves in… well for me anyway!

Working together

One of the first schemes I looked after when I first started working at Stonewater was Crouch Lane, Holwell, a scheme Stonewater had been working on since 2014. When I took on the site, I was initially dealing with local queries about boundaries and then drainage, but this was also followed with two development contractors we were working with unfortunately going into administration.

In addition to this, the development is right next door to a children’s nursery, and there were a lot of very understandable concerns about the safety of the children there during the build period.

My team has worked closely with the local community and the nursery’s team to minimise the impact of the build programme and now we are finally a month into the build!

As part of this project, Stonewater is also working with the nursery’s children to create a photo book portraying the village’s history, which will be given to the scheme’s new residents when they move in.

This scheme is a great example of showing how when housing providers work closely with the local community whilst initially, they may be hesitant when armed with the facts and an opportunity to be part of the process do see the benefits of small scale considerate affordable rural new build schemes.

Celebrating rural communities

Although the previously planned activities by the NHF to celebrate Rural Housing Week have been postponed, my organisation is hosting a webinar about our experience of rural housing development this Wednesday (8th July) at 3pm. It will be a great opportunity to shine a light on some of the key rural issues, I’ve briefly mentioned in this article.

Our Chief Executive, Nicholas Harris and Executive Director of Development, Jonathan Layzell will be joined on the panel by Martin Collett, Chief Executive at English Rural Housing, Monica Burns, Head of Member Relations at National Housing Federation and Sian Griffiths, Director of RCA Generation Ltd.

Everyone from across the sector is welcome, all you need to do is sign up here.