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Use planning's rural exception sites rule to unlock affordable homes

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Explain benefits of planning mechanism Rural Exception Sites and double delivery of affordable homes on these sites says UCL study

John Pardey Architects’ RIBA National award-winning Lovedon Fields private development in Hampshire. But greater understanding by councils of the Rural Exception Sites planning mechanism could spur delivery of high-quality social housing in the countryside.
John Pardey Architects’ RIBA National award-winning Lovedon Fields private development in Hampshire. But greater understanding by councils of the Rural Exception Sites planning mechanism could spur delivery of high-quality social housing in the countryside. Credit: Pete Humphry

Affordable housing is vital in rural communities, yet rising property prices and land values, a focus on conservation and environmental protection and other factors have held back the number of completions.

But tapping into under-used Rural Exception Site planning policy could allow social housing providers to ‘significantly’ ramp up the delivery of affordable homes in England if stakeholders were more aware of the benefits, a report by UCL and the English Rural Housing Association has revealed.

RES were established in national policy in 1991 as a mechanism to deliver affordable homes on dedicated small plots of agricultural land made available at a lower price than land allocated for housing development. Such developments are required to prioritise affordable housing for people with a connection to the local community and in 2012 the policy was expanded to allow small numbers of market sale homes to cross-subsidise and make the delivery of affordable housing more viable.

However, researchers found that the policy has not been widely used since its inception and has delivered relatively few homes.

Phoebe Stirling, co-author of the report and a research fellow at UCL explained: ‘Between 2017 and 2022, a total of 3,500 units were delivered on RES. However, the largest contribution to those numbers was 1,097 units in Cornwall. Other areas have the same challenges and are operating within the same policy framework, but are delivering fewer houses on these sites. About half the local authorities don't engage with the policy at all.’

Key reasons for the failure to exploit the mechanism, said researchers, include a general lack of understanding of the policy, local landowners' reluctance to sell land for development, poor policy wording and opposition from local council members and residents.

RES projects can be ‘drawn out over very long timeframes’, some taking ‘up to five years, others even longer,’ the report states, so support for and opposition to any scheme can ‘wax and wane’. Furthermore, landowners are often looking for a greater value of return for their land so Registered Providers ‘enter into negotiations with landowners who are not otherwise interested in selling the land at or near agricultural value.’

The report notes that many of these obstacles can be overcome by improving awareness of RES policy and disseminating clearer information on how it works.

It recommends that every parish council be given information on RES policy, that Rural Housing Enablers are trained to raise awareness about RES and that guidance is developed to incentivise landowners to release land for such sites. Furthermore, the authors call for the creation of a national programme highlighting the policy and the production of a ‘positive model’ for RES development, showcasing what homes can look like.

Stirling believes that increasing engagement with the policy could result in ‘at least a doubling of output on rural exception sites’ as ‘a minimum aspiration’.

It should also give greater clarity to housing associations and landowners negotiating over land, added Stirling: ‘There remains some ambiguity around how these negotiations should go, so clear guidelines on land price, cross-subsidy and other incentives for landowners would help …Where RES sites do come forward, it typically takes longer and it takes more manpower, so greater clarity would help more landowners come forward to engage with housing associations.’

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