HAVING grown up in rural Shropshire, the subject of rural housing has long been close for me even before joining the housing sector, writes Alex Fury, Muir's Assistant Director of Assets and Growth.
Common themes around the scarcity of new development, the perceived influx of ‘out of area’ buyers pushing up prices and the sensitivity of planning decisions to name a few.
In summary however, the message is clear. Willingness for rural housing delivery is not in abundance and where it is, it takes commitment to achieve.
So how do we as a sector proactively and positively meet the challenges of rural housing delivery? For me, the first principle is that we should recognise that no two schemes will be the same.
We must treat each locality individually with the commitment to work with them as a community. Remember this is about homes and places, not just properties.
Secondly, if you are going to deliver rural housing then do so with the full commitment of your organisation and its decisions makers, because there is every chance these developments could present you with some decisions which may sit outside of your typical delivery model.
How does delivery work positively in practice? I have responsibility for the new homes programme at Muir Group Housing Association. I’m proud to say Muir has a decades old commitment to delivery of rural homes and has done so in its many of its operating areas including Cheshire, Fylde, Lincolnshire and Huntingdonshire.
Muir is perhaps one the rarer organisations that strategically targets rural delivery as a part of its wider development programme and has committed to doing so for the long term. For Muir the motivation is values based.
Firstly, playing its core role as a housing provider and secondly supporting the ongoing sustainability of the communities we work in. Without new development, local people are often forced to move away due to high property prices or lack of choice, leading to an impact on their families, support networks and local employers. In short that’s why we do it.
Muir follows some core principles in its process to proactively address the delivery opportunity, and those are broadly broken down into the following areas:
Select the correct site – Undertake early due diligence, complete a site visit and seek out any showstoppers. There will be the usual challenges such as ground conditions, availability of services and so on, however, with rural delivery the scrutiny of the planning process also increases so try to be in a compliant position from the off.
Early engagement of the local authority – Make them aware of your plans, seek support in principle and identify where you can work together to smooth delivery as partners. Engage Strategy and Planning teams and think about design not just delivery.
Housing Need – Delivery should be sustainable and driven by evidenced need which is often a planning requirement. In the case of rural exception, it is important to understand if there is a valid Housing Need Assessment. If not, decide early who will do that for you. In our experience there are sometimes options to commission a survey via the local authority. However, a professional external organisation with experience should be equally effective.
Engagement of the community – Rural housing development is often a sensitive topic. In some cases a community may approach you and this is helpful. If this isn’t the case then approach the community with care and respect. Be clear that you will be looking to work with them wherever possible. Think about what you share, when you share and who you engage with - Parish Council, local members and so on – transparency is important. Finally, try to make sure you get the information out to key players at the same time - First impressions count.
Restrictions – Rural housing schemes often carry restrictions for the long term or indeed in perpetuity. Examples might include restricted staircasing of shared ownership homes, allocation to local residents agreed in the planning stage. Try and be as clear as possible about this at the outset to avoid approval issues later.
Work with the correct contractor – Think about who you want to work with to deliver. Your contractor will be under a brighter spotlight than in many cases. Be clear about your behaviour expectations – remember they are representing you and you need to support each other. Think about your procurement – what added benefits or social value can you bring to the community?
Engagement of Homes England – Rural Housing delivery is a strategic objective in the 2021-26 AHP funding round and our experience is that Homes England contacts will be keen to work with you to assist delivery, so engage early.
Rural delivery can be more challenging but don’t let that be a reason to put you off, ultimately its delivery of a development scheme. Approaching it with enthusiasm will bring success, satisfaction and a huge sense of reward.
Muir is really proud to have worked within its rural communities for many years and some recent example of successful delivery are:
- Bunbury (Cheshire) – Muir partnered to deliver a scheme of Rented and Shared Ownership homes for local people. As a high value area this scheme has enabled local families to remain close to each other and contributes to the long-term sustainability of the village
- Little Leigh (Cheshire) – a Rural Exception site of Rented and Shared Ownership tenure. A great example of how new homes for local people can blend perfectly into an existing settlement and provide sustainable growth, supporting the local school and services.
- Wrea Green (Lancashire) – a scheme of Shared Ownership homes in a high value area on the Fylde coast which have provided secure long-term homes.