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Outrage: the disgrace of social housing provision in England

T&g jimstephenson 15

Governments have cynically abandoned the idea of social housing for rural communities

Worrying about rural housing is fussing about nothing. I mean nothing. Campaigns for social housing in villages don’t grab headlines and tend to be depressingly local. The lack of anywhere affordable or feasible for people to live and work is critical but invisible.   

After the brave Addison Act of 1919, and once building materials were to hand and labour easier to come by, the focus was on the countryside as much as the town. Government put pressure on local authorities to build. Hence a dozen or so council houses were built on the fringes of most villages. A study of one county, Surrey, reveals the breadth of options and responses. Central government offered help, but with narrow cost limits, enterprising councils appointed specialist officers, bought land and gained reasonable tenders from builders, often stepping beyond what the ministry allowed. 

‘The lack of anywhere affordable or feasible for people to live and work is critical but invisible’

Anyone could recognise that Right to Buy would be the death knell for rural council housing. The East Anglian village in which I was brought up, not very picturesque or protected, had various low-cost options. There were solid, boxy, semi-detached council houses, probably non-parlour type. (Interwar public housing is formally, if quaintly, defined by the absence, or presence, of parlours.) Poor quality ‘temporary’ accommodation from a typical wartime airfield ranged from upgraded Nissen huts to prefab single-storey blocks. Tied cottages came in various forms, mostly unmodernised, and additionally were subject to agricultural uncertainties, the reduction in manpower and the wishes of the farmer concerned. Several farms were County Council owned. When the water meadows disappeared under privately built bungalows in the ’70s, there was communal schadenfreude when the site flooded. Owner occupation had not yet acquired its bloom. 

Diverted by the razzamatazz of eco-towns’, then the fake allure of garden ‘villages’, people have forgotten about the actual countryside. Yet a village of say 800 residents, with primary school and amenities, will probably not have seen its social housing stock grow in the last 30 years. Only government action could have enforced that. There was none. 

‘Diverted by the razzamatazz of “eco-towns”, then the fake allure of garden “villages”, people have forgotten about the actual countryside’

Yet since the late ’90s, Lottery funding flowed to parish councils claiming grants for a run-down scout hut cum village hall or a village green in need of attention. No such assistance has been offered to secure homes for a locally rooted population, young people unable to live in the place they know, and where they may also work, and the most likely users of village hall or green, now or in the future. Life has reverted to the pattern of the past, dependent on a mix of philanthropy and self-help, like the 18th- or 19th-century planned settlement, the architect-designed new village that served the owner of a landed estate, a factory or mill. There were communal ‘back to the land’ efforts such as the Chartist model of three acres and a heap of building supplies (with manure and fruit trees), and later, self-help in the shape of the plot-lands or attempts to provide land settlements for the long-term unemployed in the 1930s. 

It is shocking to realise we have gone back to the beginning, adopting an ad hoc approach, dependent on goodwill and available energies. Bampton Trust in Cumbria was set up in 1996 by a philanthropic individual to secure five houses in Bampton Grange, all for rent to local people (and a sixth, as a village post office with bed and breakfast accommodation), all in the protected Lake District National Park. Yet just two decades earlier, an exemplary local authority on the fringes of the same area, Allerdale Borough Council, was continually adding small runs of terraced housing to villages across its area and, most ambitiously, commissioned a strong Newcastle architectural firm, Napper, Errington, Collerton Partnership, to rebuild a former mining village, including sheltered housing and reusing the village hall.  

‘This is a (polite) civil war, being fought over the fading embers of actual rural life, before they are entirely extinguished’

Yet, for all the involvement and funding from central and local government in the mid 20th century, none of this has been applied in a modern format to 21st-century rural housing policy, welded to the market and its devotees. The roll-out of Local Housing Companies, in which local authorities start to build again, offers some comfort. But providing new houses, for those in the most need but with the least assets, is demanding and difficult. 

Here and there the fight-back gathers momentum. Two organisations born out of the Victorian and Edwardian philanthropic model village, the Bournville Village Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, are tireless. Recently they have, respectively, persuaded the House of Lords to uphold the exemption to Right to Buy on charitably owned houses, and highlighted the plight of rural housing in a closely argued, authoritative, report. The Dartington Hall Trust, long committed to rural sustainability, is evolving a self-build scheme in The Plantation (already arousing local opposition), while the Nationwide Foundation is driving the rise and applicability of Community Land Trusts. The non-profits are busy but can do no more than fiddle in the smoking ruins. This is a (polite) civil war, being fought over the fading embers of actual rural life, before they are entirely extinguished. 

Lead image: Davy Place, in Loddon, Norfolk, is social housing designed by Tayler and Green in 1963. In 1998 the project was granted listed status, one of the few 20th-century projects to be bestowed with the honour. Photograph by Jim Stephenson

This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Rethinking the rural – click here to purchase a copy