Only 1 in 6 rural councils have made use of key affordable housing option

Only a fraction of rural local planning authorities (17%) have made use of Rural Exception Sites, a mechanism introduced to boost the supply of affordable housing in rural areas, according to new research by University College London (UCL) on behalf of the Rural Housing Network1.

Rural Exception Sites were introduced in 1991 to enable the development of affordable homes on underdeveloped land that would otherwise be restricted for residential development. The sites have the potential to provide much needed affordable housing amidst the escalating rural housing crisis. In 2022 rural rough sleeping2 increased by 24% and 300,000 people were on rural social housing waiting lists3.

Out of 145 rural local authorities, only 25 used Rural Exception Sites to deliver affordable homes between 2021 and 2022, resulting in 546 homes being built. However, nearly 3,000 affordable homes could have been developed if the vast majority of rural councils had utilised rural expectation sites in the time period, presenting a massive, missed opportunity.4

The research also looked at some of the reasons why Rural Exception Sites haven’t been fully utilised and outlines a number of recommendations to help successfully deliver affordable homes in rural areas.
Following a nationwide survey of local planning authorities, the study identified limited resources in planning departments, rising land costs, outdated development plans, and local opposition as common barriers to delivering affordable homes through Rural Exception Sites. These challenges were intensified by the long-standing financial disparity in rural areas.

To tackle these challenges, the report lays out several strategic recommendations for local planning authorities, policy makers and housing providers.

The recommendations include emphasising the importance of engaging with local communities early in the development process to garner support, as well as increasing the support and resources for Rural Housing Enablers. Where Rural Housing Enablers exist and are governed effectively, the delivery of Rural Exception Sites is systematically higher. Alongside this, the report recommends encouraging stronger partnerships between local authorities, developers, and communities, calling for policy adjustments, such as updating the National Planning Policy Framework, and advocating for additional funding and resources for rural planning authorities to effectively manage and support Rural Exception Site projects.

The underexploited potential of Rural Exception Sites represents a significant missed opportunity in tackling the rural housing crisis. By aligning strategic resources, enhancing policy frameworks, and fostering community partnerships, the full potential of this underutilised policy can be harnessed and provide a sustainable and scalable answer to the affordable housing needs in rural England.

Nick Gallent, lead UCL researcher, said, “The under-use of Rural Exception Sites by some councils is a lost opportunity. By fostering knowledge, planning support, community partnership, and the dedication of Rural Housing Enablers, we can significantly enhance these vital resources for affordable rural housing.” He further emphasises the crucial role of landowners in making rural land available for community-focused housing, as highlighted in previous research with English Rural5.

Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, said, “The severe shortage of new affordable homes is felt acutely in rural communities, with local businesses and services put at risk when people can’t afford to live in their local area. When a shop, or a pub or a post office closes in a rural area, it has a negative impact on the community.”

“The experiences of so many rural communities offer stark examples of what happens when the housing market doesn’t meet local need. This research highlights a key route to help solve this issue. However, it also highlights the immense resource and funding pressures on local authorities across the country. We are urging policy makers and stakeholders to consider these recommendations and work together to help tackle the rural housing shortage.”

Speaking on behalf of Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), Alison Letts, Programme Manager said: “The study shows Rural Exception Sites are a key tool for addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the countryside as they offer up a means by which communities can secure developments that are tailored and proportionate to their needs. But increasing their use depends on the availability of specialist Rural Housing Enablers who are critical to brokering support for such schemes with residents, landowners, and parish councils.

Thanks to recent funding from Defra, we are working with our members to create a network of RHEs on hand to work with communities across England, however this must be viewed as a longer-term commitment by government as it takes time to build relationships on the ground and encourage action.”

1 The research was funded by English Rural Housing Association, Hastoe Housing Association, Trent & Dove Housing Association, and the National Housing Federation. The 17% statistic refers to local authorities classed as ‘mainly rural’, ‘largely rural’ or ‘urban with significant rural’ and covers the period 2021-2022.
2 The increase in hidden homelessness in rural areas was highlighted in research commissioned by English Rural and other rural advocates, and conducted by the Universities of Kent and Southampton.
3 Data on waiting list figures was provided by research conducted by CPRE – The Countryside Charity.
4 In the 2021-2022 period, local authorities using rural exception sites delivered an average of 22 homes each. This suggests that if more authorities adopted this approach, an additional 2,640 affordable homes could be provided.
5 Research commissioned by English Rural and conducted by UCL.
6 ACRE was a member of the steering group for the research project and a key consultee.

ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) is a charity speaking up for and supporting rural communities. It is the national body of the ACRE Network, England’s largest rural grouping of community support charities which support of initiatives that equip people with the knowledge, skills, and connections needed to improve their local community.
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