IT”S ONE of England”s most picturesque landscapes. The rolling hills, patchwork-quilt fields and drystone walls coupled with a little help from the Calendar Girls film have made the Yorkshire Dales famous all over the world.

Rural tourism has boomed over the past 25 years, generating a welcome source of revenue as incomes from agriculture have declined. But look behind the rural idyll, and a different picture emerges. Like many desirable rural areas, soaring prices and rising demand for holiday homes in the Dales means it is increasingly difficult for local families and young people to buy their own homes.

It would be wrong, of course, to blame all of this on a single film. The situation is little different in rural Devon, Northumberland or the Lake District. All have experienced spiralling rural house prices over the past five years. The cost of an average house in parts of rural Yorkshire is now over six times higher than the average household income, according to a recent study funded by the Countryside Agency and the government”s Housing Corporation.

But a unique 10m investment programme aims to provide affordable rented housing for rural residents. The scheme is a partnership between the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Skipton Building Society and Craven District Council.

Starting with a pilot initiative in the Craven area of the National Park, the scheme will be rolled out over a number of years. The aim is two-fold to encourage local residents to stay in rural communities and to attract key workers, such as nurses and teachers, to areas where they are needed.

Once a need for key workers has been highlighted in a particular area of the National Park, the authority will help find suitable sites. Skipton Building Society will then fund the construction of two and three-bedroom homes that will then be let to key workers at below market rents. Up to 150 homes could be provided.

Building society chief executive John Goodfellow says: “We hope to prove the many benefits of helping to sustain existing communities in the Dales, while offering affordable housing to people who really have something to offer the area.” Although a bold idea, the scheme is just the latest attempt to stem what experts warn is a burgeoning housing crisis in the countryside. Homelessness is rising faster across rural England than in big towns and cities, according to a recent report by the housing charity Shelter.

Shelter director Adam Sampson explains: “The combination of second home buyers and a failure to replace lost homes has pushed prices up to the point where families who have lived in a town or a village for generations are forced to move away.”

In the south of the Dales, Josh Sutton, manager of Craven District Council”s homelessness advice service, says he has dealt with more than 300 hardship cases since last April. The service is approached by an increasing number of 16 and 17-year olds asking for help, he adds.

RESERVED

In addition to the 10m investment scheme, a new rule ensuring that new homes in the Dales will be reserved for local people is also one step nearer. Members of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority have agreed in principle a policy that will stop new homes being bought as second homes or as holiday lets.

The policy part of the authority”s Yorkshire Dales Local Plan was supported recently by government planning inspector William Carlow, who agreed that any homes to be built in the National Park should meet demand from local people and be at more affordable prices. And when they are sold, they should not be bought as second homes or holiday homes but must be occupied by locals.

The local planning committee has now backed the policy that would restrict the occupancy of new homes to people who need to live or work within the National Park and the policies could be introduced shortly.

Such a radical idea is likely to be welcomed by people like Helen Holme, secretary of Craven District Young Farmers” Club. A 19-year-old student nurse, she says people who come from cities and buy second homes in the area don”t always contribute to life in the Dales (see right).

But solving the problem is difficult. Stiff opposition to house building remains in many villages and not just in the Dales. A proposed development in the village of Ruskington, Lincs, was rejected recently, even though the developer had included plans for a number of affordable homes.

In a bid to ease the pressure, the government announced just weeks ago that it was to retain the exception rule the policy that enables local planning authorities to grant planning permission for affordable housing on small sites where house-building is normally not allowed.

Sylvia Brown, chief executive of the charity Action with Communities in Rural England, says the move will give communities the confidence to support additional housing for local people secure from the threat of market forces pushing their prices up.

Landowners agree. Mark Hudson, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), describes the government”s decision to keep the rural exceptions policy as a win-win situation for rural communities and the rural economy.

Farmers usually sell land under the exception rule at prices substantially lower than the open-market price because the land could not attract planning permission for any other type of housing. It also enables them to put something back into their local community.

The next step, believes Mr Hudson, is for the government to let landowners fund affordable rural housing schemes by building a limited number of open-market value properties on the same site. Mindful perhaps of opposition from conservationists, however, ministers have so far ruled out the idea.

In the meantime, the public and private sectors are coming together in a bid to deliver their own solutions. Last autumn, representatives from over 130 companies and charities met at Eaton Hall, the Cheshire home of the Duke of Westminster one of Britain”s wealthiest landowners.

The event was part of the Affordable Rural Housing Initiative, launched by Prince Charles. In a bid to encourage the private sector to provide more affordable homes in the countryside, the partnership involves some of the most influential organisations in the field.

If successful, meanwhile, the Yorkshire Dales National Park initiative will show that public-private partnerships can indeed help ease the rural housing crisis. And if that is the case, similar projects are likely to spring up in other parts of the country.

Park Authority chief executive David Butterworth acknowledges there is no guarantee that the scheme will work. But he insists: “Public organisations sometimes have to go out on a limb to try to address the fundamental issues facing rural communities.”

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