Rural Affordable Housing – Understanding Rural Needs

This essay forms part of a collection of essays, Building consent: housing by popular demand published by Localis.

Kerry Booth, Chief Executive Rural Services Network

In July 2023, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made an announcement about the  Conservative party approach to housebuilding with the statement, “Today I can confirm that we will meet our manifesto commitment to build 1 million homes over this Parliament. That’s a beautiful new home for a million individual families in every corner of our country…We won’t do that by concreting over the countryside – our plan is to build the right homes where there is the most need… in the heart of Britain’s great cities.”

The contradiction here is interesting, firstly setting out that homes would be built in every corner of the country, and then limiting them to being built in our great cities.  Worryingly, this approach completely ignores the needs of rural communities where there is a significant lack of affordable housing, securing affordable housing on new developments can be challenging and homelessness can be hidden.

Rural areas suffer from a lack of understanding on many fronts, rural public services are underfunded, and expensive to provide, houses are unaffordable for people earning local wages, public transport provision is patchy and the rural economy is not getting the support it needs to grow and prosper, as digital and mobile connectivity lags behind that of the rest of the country.

Housing is less affordable in rural than urban areas (excepting London). In 2022, the average lower quartile house price was 8.8 times the average lower quartile earnings in rural areas compared with 7.6 times in urban areas.  Additionally, the rural rental market is under strain, with a trend towards short-term holiday lets reducing the availability of long-term affordable rentals. This housing deficit not only stifles rural economic growth but also risks rural communities becoming empty communities, without the population to service local shops and facilities all year round. 

Affordable housing is crucial for maintaining local support networks and community ties, especially for younger residents and those with deep rooted connections. The shortage also challenges rural businesses in retaining essential workers and impedes the recruitment of key professionals like healthcare workers and educators.  Moreover, the prevalence of older, inefficient properties in rural areas exacerbates health risks, underscoring the need for immediate housing improvements.

So, we know that there is a housing crisis in rural communities, but how do we start to resolve this problem? 

Most importantly, we need politicians to understand the needs of their rural communities and implement policies that are not a ‘one size fits all’ approach but instead, provide solutions targeted to local needs.

The Rural Services Network has set out 3 short term asks of the political parties to help resolve this rural housing crisis:

  • Deliver a rural housing strategy stating how new housing will be delivered to meet rural community’s needs and introduce and fund an ambitious annual target for genuinely affordable quality rural homes.
  • Protect rural tenants by ensuring that local authorities can register and manage the short and long term rental market to meet local need, avoiding oversupply of holiday lets.
  • Ensure a national homelessness strategy includes investing in solutions in rural areas.

In addition to these, there are key policy areas where a rural focused approach would help.  Rural Exception Sites could play a key role in the delivery of affordable housing in rural areas however this policy is not widely used across the country. Well trained Rural Housing Enablers are central to the success of this policy, but the Government has only committed to fund them until 2025 (the end of this spending review).  The lifetime of a housing project from an idea to build new homes in a village, to families moving into those homes can take many years to complete, needing long term commitment to the Housing Enabler role.

Rural Exception Sites give priority to residents with a local connection to the area in addition to the need for affordable housing, and when this is understood by the community, this can help to increase local acceptance of the scheme. 

Finally, rural public services have been underfunded by successive governments with urban councils receiving 36% more in Government Funded Spending Power per head in 2024-2025 compared to rural councils. This underfunding leaves councils at a disadvantage in the delivery of services, as they are forced to cut spend in areas to balance the books.  As an example, last year urban councils were able to budget to spend 3.5 more than rural councils on public transport.  The lack of transport in rural communities can make accessing public services such as healthcare appointments, employment, and training opportunities more difficult. 

Government has recognised that it costs more to deliver services in rural areas, and now it needs to implement the changes to the funding formula to ensure that these are actually ‘recognised’ in the allocations that rural councils receive.

So that’s housing and funding, but where else do we need Government to focus to help solve this crisis? A future focused vision for rural communities involves not just building the right homes in the right places but also ensuring thriving, sustainable communities. This entails equipping villages and towns with the necessary infrastructure to support sustainable living and local business prosperity including access to crucial services.

Effective planning policies rigorously rural proofed, are essential to avoid drawbacks and tailor solutions to the unique needs of rural communities. The planning system plays a pivotal role in balancing economic social and environmental demands both in shaping policies and in making decisions on individual applications.

The Rural Services Network has set out 3 short term asks of the political parties to help support the planning process:

  • Deliver an effective approach to neighbourhood plans into which rural communities have spent a huge amount of time and effort.
  • Protect rural voices and community engagement around planning whilst digital might always be their preferred choice, poor connectivity in rural areas means many voices are being lost.
  • Ensure vacant and underused buildings in rural town centres find productive use as housing in appropriate locations and where little prospect exists of continuing retail use.

The challenges facing rural communities cannot be tackled in isolation, this essay has shown solutions for housing, planning and touched on fair funding, but the Government must recognise that our rural communities need homes they can afford, with good jobs, connectivity to enable businesses to grow, easy access to healthcare services, and rural public services that are fairly funded. 

Ultimately, we need a political party that embraces the 10 million residents living in rural England, and commits to design policy to suit their needs, only then will our rural communities thrive.

Read more about the Rural Services Network’s Asks of Government in our Winning the Rural Vote Campaign.

This essay forms part of a collection of essays, Building consent: housing by popular demand published by Localis.


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