19 March 2024

Rural Nimbys are reaping what they sowed


The Campaign to Protect Rural England has sounded the alarm once again about the affordability of countryside living. The organisation is worried about the growing disparity between prices and incomes, especially in southern England – but as one of Britain’s foremost Nimby campaign groups, it’s hard to believe that they will accept the solutions necessary to solve their problems. 

We already hear a lot about the housing crisis in cities, but rural areas suffer from a special set of pressures. In pretty and genteel areas, demand for housing is high, but supply is restricted by stringent planning regulations and intense local opposition. This has an obvious effect, driving up rents and purchase prices.  

This is particularly intense in southern England. Fast train links between picturesque villages and major cities, combined with the rise of remote work, make these places commutable for higher-paid professionals, whether those in search of more space or priced out of city housing.  Further pressure can come from the presence of second homes and short-term lets, where properties are taken out of the housing market. The result is a squeeze on locals, especially those who have grown up in the area and now work in middle-income jobs. 

According to the CPRE, across 15 rural local authorities, the rent of a two-bed property now exceeds 50% of the local median income. Unsurprisingly, Sevenoaks in Kent, a longtime destination of those moving out of London, is the worst affected, with other hot spots in Surrey and on the outskirts of Bath and Bristol. In places such as these, locals on rural wages are competing with relocators, for properties that are not just more expensive than national averages, but rising at quicker rates than urban equivalents. 

For rural communities, this is creating real issues. Those in jobs essential to the running of the countryside, whether in private companies or state employment, are priced out of where they need to work. This undermines the local economy, pressures rural businesses and adds to the squeeze on hospitals, education, and other services. It also means worsening rates of rural poverty, and the disruption of communities as young families are forced to move elsewhere. 

The CPRE are right to be worried. Rising house prices present a real threat to the rural way of life – but countryside communities remain stubbornly opposed to the housebuilding that might alleviate it, often encouraged by the CPRE. Even the smallest developments in rural places attract huge opposition, with locals mobilising against proposals for even half a dozen houses. When bigger planning reforms are proposed, the CPRE usually lobbies against them, pushing alarming narratives about ‘concreting the countryside’ to the press and MPs. 

Even in response to this growing crisis, the organisation remains unconvinced by liberalisation. The CPRE’s proposals to combat rising prices just tinker at the edges of the problem, with the same sort of ideas that have already failed to stem the housing crisis – redefining ‘affordable homes’ to have a link to wages, targets on social housing without the means to reach them, and a register of second homes to encourage extra levies. They are piecemeal solutions to a wholesale problem. 

The housing crisis in the countryside is, at its heart, no different from that in the cities. For decades we have failed to build enough homes, largely because of a planning system which makes it hard. In cities, suburbs and villages, we’ve empowered existing homeowners to block and veto, protecting their own property prices at the extent of broader economic costs. Now the problem is becoming more and more acute. 

Rural areas in striking distance from the richest cities get hit by this in two ways. There is local supply and demand, as communities outgrow the existing housing stock. This, however, is exacerbated by the overflow from urban areas. With the richer workers no longer able to afford the quality of life they want in the suburbs, they are pushed further out, deploying their greater financial heft to snap up properties where the local wages are lower. The only way out of this is to build more of everything. 

No one really wants to see the widespread concreting of the English countryside, but the only truly workable response to a lack of housing is more housing. If villages want to retain those who grow up there, or who provide essential services, they have to find ways to expand. The CPRE and rural advocates cannot expect a solution while there is a Nimby behind every blade of grass. The planning system should be remodelled to make local residents partners in development, rather than veto-wielding blockers. 

Away from the most precious areas of the countryside, we should be honest about what we are dealing with. Many of the areas mentioned in the CPRE report are far from rural idylls. Sevenoaks itself is a town of 30,000 people, only just outside of the M25 and with plenty of 1960s and 1970s developments. There’s no real reason why its edges couldn’t spread a little, or its centre be densified – creating plenty of properties without jeopardising the most picturesque bits of the Weald. Equally, there are almost certainly scrubby bits of the green belt that would benefit from being built on. 

If the CPRE are serious about tackling rural housing problems, they should also be the keenest advocates of more urban and suburban developments (and not just keep pretending that the whole thing can be solved by building on brownfield). Many city professionals will always dream of rural life, but lots will be satiated if their housing demand is met without the need for long train journeys and with city living on their doorstep. Boosting wider supply would be a better way of tamping down demand for rural properties than fiddling with second homes (which Britain already has fewer than many continental countries). 

Rural organisations are right to worry about the effects of the housing crisis. These areas have their specific challenges, but they are just a microcosm of the broader effect this is having on national living standards and the national economy. The threats they highlight to the rural way of life are very real. But they must acknowledge the trade-off between these and a wholly defensive approach to development. 

The only real way to deal with the problems caused by a lack of housing is an abundance of supply. This means building, in cities, in suburbs, and in the rural areas where demand is most acute. This should be considered and careful, but it should not be about blanket refusals to build. If the CPRE and other rural groups are serious about tackling this, they need to embrace their inner Yimby and find sensible ways to let the supply flow. 

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John Oxley is a writer and broadcaster. He blogs at www.joxleywrites.jmoxley.co.uk

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.