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Wanted: new solutions to the housing crisis killing the countryside

Friday 14 February 2003

Countryside columnist John Sheard argues that we need new thinking to provide affordable housing for young country folk - or end up as exhibits in a rural museum

A DECADE or so ago, Lord Shuttleworth, a tireless worker for the countryside, told me of a visit he had made to open a new post office and shop in a Peak District quarrying village.

Dales Houses - Out of reach for the majority of first time buyers
Dales Houses - Out of reach for the majority of first time buyers

At the time, he was chairman of the Rural Development Commission, long since scrapped by this government, the oldest quango in British history - set up almost 100 years ago by Lloyd George to stop the drift of workers from the land into the towns and cities.

He arrived for his appointment early in the working day and was surprised to see, outside rows of former quarrymen's cottages, men in suits getting into their Jaguars and BMWs to drive to their offices in Sheffield, Derby or Nottingham.

Simultaneously, the road to the quarry was becoming jammed with old bangers as the quarry workers arrived from their homes in the nastier inner city areas of Sheffield to begin their day's work.

What had happened, said Charles Shuttleworth, was a sort of ethnic cleansing: the price of the old cottages, once the domain of the local workforce, had become so high that the locals had been driven out by wealthy offcumdens.

And tired of the commuting, the quarrymen found other jobs as soon as they could - in the city - and there ended an often generations-old connection between the village and the locals.

This is a scene that had been repeated many times in the Yorkshire Dales and, in the past tens years has got even worse: average house prices in the national park are now over £200,000, an impossible burden for young couples already paying £100 a week or more in rent.

How could they possibly save the £20,000 deposit to put down on such a house, never mind pay a huge mortgage which, at some point, is likely get even bigger when the current record low interest rates inevitably go up?

Against this background, the Yorkshire branch of the Country Land and Business Association this week called for the re-introduction of council houses, a demand which might surprise many people who, wrongly, look upon the CLA as an association of toffs disinterested in the problems of the lower orders.

It is a good idea. But, I'm afraid, it comes too late. Hundreds of former council tenants rushed to buy their sturdily built homes, often with large gardens on land bought cheap by compulsory purchase, and now many of them have been sold at a handsome profit - or, worse still, are let out as holiday homes, denuding their communities of even more permanent "locals."

Craven District Council is, it hopes, about to hand over all its council properties to a housing association after several fraught years of negotiation with its tenants. The reason: the rents it is allowed to charge have never even covered the cost of repairs and maintenance, never mind paid back the capital invested.

And anyway, the last thing we want in the Yorkshire Dales is new council housing estates with all the social problems they attract. What do need is small knots of small houses, built in local materials, in-filling gaps in existing villages.

But there are problems there, too. Such building is very expensive per unit. And, I regret to say, such plans are regularly opposed by wealthier local residents - often offcumdens themselves - who fear the arrival of the hoi polloi might affect their own property prices.

What we need, then, is some extension of the housing association principle which would allow young couples to buy a part-shared in a property and move in without having to find an impossible deposit. The Government could lean on the banks - at present making indecently huge profits - and building societies to fund such plans. They can afford it!

But unless someone, somewhere, comes up with some better ideas, we face a future of even more deserted villages, sans school, sans shop, sans pub, sans church.

Then we can all don our smocks, pick up our pitch forks, stuff straws into our mouths - and wave as the tourist coaches go by, their windows packed with the faces of visiting townies anxious to gape at that near extinct species, country folk.

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