A house being built on farmland© Tim Scrivener

Landowners say they can help solve the rural housing crisis and regenerate countryside communities if barriers to development are removed.

Ahead of the government’s housing White Paper expected to be published next week, rural leaders and farmers said there was appetite to develop small-scale housing projects, but a costly and complicated process often prevented this.

The White Paper is expected to put extra pressure on local authorities (LAs) to boost house building.

See also: Compulsory purchase of farmland: Claim what you are owed

Income

Landowners argue they could contribute to this, generating an important source of diversified income and encouraging people to live and work in the countryside.

“There is a growing realisation that problems with the affordability of housing are beginning to fray the bonds of rural communities,” said Fenella Collins, head of planning at the Country Land and Business Association.

“Our members want a living, working countryside that is economically active and socially diverse – for many, looking to develop small numbers of housing of all types is a positive way of contributing towards the longevity of their communities.”

Planning frustrations 

However, she said landowners were frustrated by the planning system.

The costs, time and complications involved often dissuaded them from pursuing planning applications.

Others took a “leap of faith”, spending large sums without knowing whether they would be permitted to build.

LAs needed to be forced to ditch outdated housing plans and review their definition of “sustainable housing”, as this often precluded developments not on the edge of towns, said Ms Collins.

Half of all permitted development rights applications to convert farm buildings to dwellings were still being rejected, she said. The government needed to intervene to change regulations or strengthen guidance for planning officers.

Encouraging landowners to build and manage their own affordable housing could bring huge benefits, said Matthew O’Connell, housing adviser at the CLA.

They often had the ability and sensitivity to provide small-scale developments more in keeping with their community than big developers.

Postcode lottery

However, a postcode lottery existed over rural exception sites – where housing development is only allowed if it is affordable. Cornwall, for example, allowed 300 homes to be built on such sites last year, while Northumberland had allowed 36 in 2011-12 and none since, said Mr O’Connell.

Affordable housing could be exempt from capital gains and inheritance taxes to make it more financially attractive, he said.

House building increased last year but was still almost 25% down on pre-recession levels. House prices increased 7% between October 2015 and October 2016.

Suzanne Clear, senior planning and rural affairs adviser at the NFU, said the organisation hoped the White Paper would promote affordable homes in rural areas for all age groups and in locations which made sense for farm workers.

“We have reports that expensive houses are sometimes being built on large estates but then permission is refused for a caravan or modest home on farm. We also want to see farmers getting more say in the planning process for building on farmland

“We are waiting for the government’s response to the Rural Planning Review [which took place in spring 2016] and hope to get some more up to date and positive planning rules to help promote productive, modern farming.”

Case study: Matthew Morris, Bolesworth Estate, Cheshire

Affordable homes benefit all

Matthew Morris

Matthew Morris

The Bolesworth Estate in Cheshire is a Registered Social Landlord, allowing it to manage its own affordable housing.

It has built seven houses, with a mix of tenants on affordable and open market rents and has a housing development for pensioners, including 20 affordable dwellings. It has strict criteria that tenants should have a connection to the parish.

The estate’s manager, Matthew Morris, said it had been a challenging and lengthy process – the first development taking 10 years.

“We’re not in it to get rich quick, but [affordable housing] adds resilience and flexibility.”

“We live and work in our community and if that community fails it disproportionately affects the estate.”

He described having to “grind through” the planning system. “It’s not for the faint hearted – but it can be incredibly rewarding.”

Case study: William Ashley, Monks Green Farm, Hertfordshire

Costly process needs simplifying

William Ashley stands outside a barn

William Ashley

Sheep farmer and forage producer William Ashley has converted two barns into three dwellings and chicken sheds into 12 live-in work units. He advises other farmers with permitted development rights applications.

“It’s costly and a lot of farmers haven’t got time to keep pursuing applications as they don’t know what will happen at the end.”

“The appetite is there to develop but people keep coming up against a brick wall – the overriding feeling is we’re desperate for housing and we can help provide it.

“It’s not just a project – it’s the 20 blokes we’ve had working here for a year, going to the local pub and shop [and the businesses on the farm] employing local people.”

“If we hadn’t diversified the way we have, we wouldn’t have survived.”