Opinion piece: Why the need for rural housebuilding is greater than ever

Stonewater remains committed to leading the way in rural housebuilding but for this year’s Rural Housing Week, Stonewater’s Executive Director for Development, Jonathan Layzell, is highlighting why the need for more affordable homes in rural communities is greater than ever.

Jonathan Layzell

Quite rightly we hear a lot about the need to ‘level up’ disadvantaged communities and about the geographical differences within regions across the country. However, in my experience, the gaps between rural and urban communities can be even more acute than those between the north and the south.

It is too simplistic to view the ‘levelling up agenda’ through the lens of north and south, in particular in relation to the need for government expenditure. The more specific needs of rural areas are often overlooked despite rural communities being faced with higher costs, lower funding and greater need for affordable housing provision. The spectre of economic and social exclusion in our rural communities is a very real problem.

The recent Pragmatix Advisory report on delivering the promise of proportionate public funding for rural communities identified that the “lack of economies of scale mean delivery of services in rural areas will likely cost more than in urban locations. But despite this, public sector spending per head is higher in regions with a greater share of the population living in urban areas. This urban-centric bias has a particularly acute impact on the rural regions.

“The way in which government allocates spending spatially is placing rural communities at a disadvantage - and failing to unlock the opportunities they can offer to the nation as part of a digitised, decarbonised and decentralised modern economy.”

These challenges faced by rural communities have only been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has altered the way in which we think about our homes, highlighting the need for safe, local, green outdoor space. As more people realise the benefits of working from home and the need to live a commutable distance from their nominal place of work is reduced, we have seen property and rent prices rise at a higher rate in rural communities, placing even greater pressure on affordability. It is therefore vital that our focus as housing providers remains on delivering much-needed affordable homes to sustain rural communities and enable local people to stay in the communities they know and love.

At Stonewater, our focus on increasing the proportion of new homes we design and build each year has given us the opportunity to think very carefully about creating places that offer flexible internal space for home working/schooling and creating outdoor spaces for our communities to feel at home in.

It is unusual for one of the sector’s larger developers to play a key role in providing this type of housing; rural housing building is often thought of as a niche area with such homes being delivered by smaller, specialist housing associations.

However, last year nearly a quarter of the developments Stonewater delivered across the country were in rural communities – offering a mix of tenures ranging from lowcost starter homes to large family houses, with properties for social rent and affordable rent, Rent to Buy or shared ownership.

For example, we worked in partnership with Living Space to provide 32 new homes for affordable rent and shared ownership, alongside 19 homes for market sale in Cradley, Herefordshire. Nestled in foothills of the Malvern Hills, Cradley is a perfect example of a rural village where wages for local employment opportunities are relatively low, but property prices are high.

Our strategic partnership with Guinness also means that the two organisations have secured £224m of Homes England funding to build 4,500 high-quality, affordable homes by March 2022. The additional funding has enabled Stonewater to extend and accelerate our development plans, bringing forward the building of affordable and social housing, including brand new schemes in rural areas right across England.

That said, we also understand the unique considerations that need to be made when developing in rural communities. Ensuring that the size, mix and design of rural housing is right, environmental issues are taken into consideration and local communities are fully on board, are all essential aspects of delivering schemes which will not only meet housing need but help rural communities under threat to survive and thrive.

We remain committed to our role in the delivery of small, sensitive affordable housing schemes in rural areas and are ready take up the new and long-standing challenges rural schemes often present.