The housing crisis consists of a series of inter-related problems - a failure to deliver enough housing, housing that is beyond the means of many people, and increasing homelessness.
It is easy to imagine these problems as principally urban ones, but they are also present in our rural communities, although they can be less visible and consequently attract less political attention.
Even if evidence demonstrates that market housing on rural exception sites does lead to increased affordable housing, this does not necessarily mean we accept that this helps to create the kind of rural communities we want to see, or deem it the right way to finance affordable housing.
Rural communities are often very finely balanced communities, made up of people from across the socio-economic spectrum living within small towns and villages. Planning can play an especially important role in sustaining these communities and planners have access to a range of tools to support rural housing.
Rural exception sites - a viable policy?
The critical question is: are planners making best use of their toolkit to deliver affordable housing in rural areas?
The planning systems in England and Wales enable local planning authorities to develop policies for affordable housing exception sites or rural exception sites. These policies support the development of affordable housing on sites that would not otherwise be suitable for open market housing – including those outside of settlement boundaries and in ‘open countryside’.
These policies assume that the need for rural affordable housing is so important that it enables an exception to be made to the usual policies constraining housing outside of defined settlement boundaries. These sites are not identified in the development plan, which increases the flexibility of their location but diminishes certainty of delivery.
How the policy differs in England and Wales
The idea of allowing housing in locations where you would not normally grant planning permission for housing can cause tension. This tension has increased with the emergence of some important policy differences between England and Wales in how such exception policies and sites are used.
National planning policy in England permits a proportion of market housing on rural exception sites as a means of facilitating delivery. This is, in effect, a means of cross-subsidising the provision of affordable housing in an era of declining public subsidy. The revised NPPF refers to a proportion of market housing on sites. Working within this national framework, Cornwall Council, for example, has designed carefully-worded policies to support the delivery of affordable housing on rural exception sites, facilitated by the provision of market housing.
The policy framework in Wales is different – ‘affordable housing exception sites’ are set out in national planning policy as being suitable only for affordable housing.
Some Welsh local planning authorities have attempted to include an element of market housing on affordable housing exception sites, like the position in England. But these attempts are usually short-lived as inspectors at examination point out the obvious conflict with Welsh national planning policies.
Pros and cons of having market housing in rural exception sites
The Royal Town Planning Institute recently commissioned research to examine the effectiveness of affordable housing exception sites in delivering rural affordable housing in Wales – and raised the question of whether the policy should be changed to allow market housing on exception sites.
So, what are the advantages and risks of enabling market housing on exception sites as a way of delivering rural affordable housing?
The advantages are claimed to be an increase in the supply of rural affordable housing, especially important in an era of financial austerity, and the sustaining of mixed, balanced communities. Some market housing may be the incentive needed for rural landowners to bring sites forward, either for improved financial return or for helping to realise their own private housing ambitions in an otherwise restricted regulatory context.
A key argument against market housing on exception sites is that, in the absence of the exceptional provision of affordable housing, such sites are not really suitable as locations for housing – they are often remote, not well-served by public transport or local services, and reliant on the private car for travel.
A complementary argument is that plans should already provide for market housing in suitable locations. Market housing on exception sites, many argue, is simply a product of declining public subsidy, and there are no good planning reasons for enabling market housing in open countryside. Some people argue that ‘hope value’ also increases with enabling market housing on rural exception sites – the hope that a landowner can hold out in the future for a market housing development.
The issues here are complex ones and reflect political differences between England and Wales as much as any appeal to evidence-based policy making.
The delivery of affordable housing on rural exception sites underlines the fact that planning is not simply a technical exercise. Even if evidence was available to convincingly demonstrate that enabling market housing on rural exception sites does lead to increased affordable housing, this does not necessarily mean we accept that this helps to create the kind of rural communities we want to see, or deem it the right way to finance affordable housing provision.
Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.
Neil Harris is a Chartered Town Planner and academic in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. Twitter: @drneilharris