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Power to the parish idea on rural homes

PUBLISHED: 09:33 15 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:01 22 October 2010

A national countryside watchdog returned to the village of Brancaster this week to reveal its conclusions about the problem of affordable housing. But if its conclusions chimed with feelings in north Norfolk, will they now chime in Whitehall? Home affairs editor PAUL HILL reports.

A national countryside watchdog returned to the village of Brancaster this week to reveal its conclusions about the problem of affordable housing. But if its conclusions chimed with feelings in north Norfolk, will they now chime in Whitehall? Home affairs editor PAUL HILL reports.

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They came, they saw, they listened. They came up from London to the north Norfolk coast - not to scout for second homes - but to talk about how holiday lets and rising property values are pricing young people and families out of village life.

Nine months after they first visited Brancaster, senior figures from the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) returned to the village this week to reveal the conclusions of their national inquiry into affordable housing.

Ministers, they said, need to make sure that policies are “rural proof” - that planning and economic policies that might suit inner cities or housing estates don't make life more difficult in the countryside.

More money is needed to build affordable homes and a more flexible planning system to “enable villages to grow and adapt”.

Finally, the commission said that local communities needed to be “empowered” to determine their own fate - and when they used the word “local”, they didn't mean regions, counties or districts, they meant parishes.

The commission's recommend-ations chime with what many in the countryside have been thinking for years - decades even - as they have watched pubs and post offices close and the Kensington and Chelsea set move in, for weekends only.

The sad fact is that only 24pc of homes bought in the countryside are bought by first-time buyers, compared to 41pc in towns and cities.

Taking Brancaster as an example, property prices in north Norfolk have risen from an average of £79,898 in 2000 to £181,342 last year - more than 10 times the £17,000 average salary in rural counties.

But will the commission's recommendations chime in Whitehall?

“There's never been a better opportunity to press the case for affordable housing,” Stuart Burgess, chairman of the CRC told the meeting at Brancaster's 71 Club on Tuesday night - notably one of the few figures with national clout to come not once but twice to see for himself what is going on in Norfolk.

Dr Burgess promised to take his commission's report to all of the key departments of state, although he fell short of promising to take it to 10 Downing Street, where, inevitably, the real power in government is concentrated.

But there is a certain logic to how the current planning system works.

Houses are just bricks and mortar.

The thing that makes communities thrive is getting the practicalities right: creating communities with good transport links, easy access to schools and GP surgeries and jobs.

This thinking is what has seen planners approve the expansion of larger villages and market towns - and, indeed, is the thinking behind the draft regional plan which sets out how the six counties of the East of England will develop over the next 20 years.

So getting one government department to accept the commission's findings is only part of the problem - there needs to be a change in policy in every department, from the Department for Education and Skills, to the Department of Health to the Department for Transport.

And the Treasury.

But Dr Burgess is right to say that the time is ripe to challenge ministers to rethink their approach to the countryside.

His report is just the latest in a series to be published by different national bodies this year - including the government's own Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which has told ministers that six affordable homes should be built in parishes of about 5,000 people every year to meet demand.

Of course, where those new houses should be built is a difficult question.

Under the rural housing enabler scheme - which brings together the Norfolk Rural Community Council, parish and district councils and housing associations - 160 new affordable homes should be built in villages by mid-2008 on sites that are treated as “exceptions” to the normal planning rules.

But does this mean - again thinking of Brancaster - that new affordable homes will be built primarily on former agricultural land on the outskirts of villages while picturesque properties in the centre remain the province of the well-heeled or second-home owners?

Dr Burgess was quick to stress that the commission had no desire to see “social housing slums” or ghettos.

But the villages are not blank pieces of paper and their layout cannot easily be redrawn.

Perhaps one of the most worrying issues to emerge from the commission's meeting in Brancaster was the suggestion that there are landowners who are willing to give up a few acres for affordable housing - but who are struggling to get through the planning process.

Yet the commission's report is evidence that the voice of the countryside is at last being heard - and loudly in Whitehall.

Only time will tell if ministers are listening.

To watch a short film the CRC will show to ministers about affordable housing see the EDP24 website at www.edp24.co.uk.


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