An exception too far

Why the draft National Planning Policy Framework puts affordable rural rented homes at risk.

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In common with other affordable rural housing providers, the communities that English Rural Housing Association works in partnership with typically have a broad mix of housing needs, overwhelming this is always for good quality affordable rented homes.

Since the late 1980’s a hard-won planning policy, known as the Rural Exceptions Site Policy has enabled rural communities to develop small sites that would not normally be granted planning permission.

An exception to planning policy is made where these sites are adjacent to existing development boundaries, meet local housing needs and will remain affordable to local households in perpetuity.

For the past three-decades this policy has been a lifeline for villages throughout England, where low incomes and high property values, along with limited development activity and the loss of existing affordable homes via the Right to Buy, has otherwise forced hard-working local families to move away.

Over time the Rural Exception Site Policy has evolved to accommodate other affordable and discounted market tenures.

More recently changes to the policy have enabled a proportion of homes for market sale to support a cross-subsidy approach.  When promoted and used effectively, the Rural Exception Site Policy is working well.

All this could be lost though if proposals for a new Entry Level Exception Site Policy outlined within the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) go ahead.

This new Entry Level Policy will focus on securing a high proportion of entry level homes that will be offered for discounted sale.

Unlike traditional Rural Exception Sites there is no requirement for community involvement, no need to tailor developments to meet local need, no proposal to safeguard homes in perpetuity and no need for the involvement of a regulated housing association.

The argument in support of the Entry Level Policy is that it will help increase land supply.

The focus on providing less genuinely affordable tenures will mean that financial returns are likely to be higher and therefore the incentive for landowners will be greater.

The sincere compassion that many landowners show the wellbeing of their local communities is evident, they are undeniably the long-term stewards of our countryside, but let’s be honest, landowners who are often dependent on state subsidies or unpredictable incomes themselves are unlikely to ignore commercial interests; who would blame them for opting to make sites available for higher returns.

The outcome for me is obvious, a preference for making land available for Entry Level Exception Sites to the detriment of supporting the traditional Rural Exceptions Site approach, thus reducing the supply of genuinely affordable rented homes that rural communities desperately need.

The argument that more homes will be provided is weak, the existing Rural Exception Site Policy already allows mixed tenure developments that can be targeted at meeting identified local need, including entry level homes.

The most likely outcome will be the same level of homes, but ones that are developed without the partnership of the local community and do not meet the biggest need, which is for affordable rented homes.

I am from a farming family and have a great deal of respect for the landowning community.

I have seen first-hand the planning policy lottery, which makes millionaires of some overnight, whilst others struggle to maintain a viable business.

I recognise landowner aspirations, but having seen the desperate circumstances of low-income rural families choosing between heating their home or putting food on the table, households in desperate need of a secure affordable rented home, our sector should defend policies that put these needs first every time.

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