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Affordable housing: Dales locals fight

Friday 21 January 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard examines this week's decision to limit new house building in the Yorkshire Dales National Park to local buyers and - fingers crossed - hopes that it will mean a new dawn for rural communities

IT IS now almost 15 years since a man who was then the Government's leading expert on the problems of rural life told me: "I am afraid that I can see the end of the 'roses round the door' dream for thousands of country people.

"If change continues at the present rate, it will be virtually impossible for anyone who is not rich to live in the countryside because there will be no plumbers, no electricians, no builders, no public transport, few shop and few pubs. To have any work done will mean sending for help to the nearest town - and that will be very expensive."

The speaker was Lord Shuttleworth, who lives on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales just over the border in Leck, Lancs, and at the time he was the very active chairman of the Rural Development Commission (RDC) Britain's oldest "quango."

It was even then almost 100 hundred years old and its job was to help secure a balance in the countryside so that there were jobs and services for all sections of the population, rather than just the rich, to prevent rural areas being turned from working communities into living museums.

More homes for young locals?
More homes for young locals?

This Government scrapped the old RDC as one of its first actions and, since then, things have gone from bad to worse in many rural areas. One of the key factors in the destruction of traditional village communities has been the soaring price of property driven up by the holiday cottage industry or rich second-home owners.

It meant that hundreds of ordinary Dales folk, mainly young people and therefore the future lifeblood of working rural life, have been forced out of villages, often where their families have lived for generations.

This week, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) took a historic step in the right direction to restore this balance by deciding - "in principle" - that in future, all newly built or converted homes can be sold only to locals (see News).

It was a move that attracted national publicity, not all of it good. The Daily Telegraph carried a cartoon on its front page showing a Dales cottage with a sign outside which shouted: "Not for sale to toffee-nosed southern nancy boys."

Whether London readers of the bible of the Tory party found this highly insulting I do not know. I found it quite hilarious because it reflects quite accurately the feelings of many Dales folk - but not because of the "nancy boy" bit.

What many despise, whilst agreeing that many "offcumdens" do integrate and do useful work in their new communities, there are sadly many more who actually believe and behave as if they are superior to local folk because they sat in boring, middle-management jobs in London or the South East and became rich just because of rising property prices.

Sadly, I have to mix with many of these people as I go about my work and outdoor leisure in the Dales and Cumbria. They don't fish, they don't shoot, and they don't ride. Not only do they have no knowledge of country life but they see no reason to learn, rather like the Brits who settle in Spain and France but can never be bothered to learn the language.

Why they come here in the first place is a mystery me but I suspect, in many cases, they look upon a house in the country as a "good investment." So they get even richer - and drive young locals from their villages and families. To me, this is nothing less than an obscenity.

So this week, the YDNPA took a brave decision to do something about it. It came at least 15 years too late - but better late than never, as they say - and we should all congratulate them.

My one worry is that the decision was accepted "as a matter or principle" which, I sincerely hope, is not a let-out clause should the going get really rough. This is a principle worth fighting for to the bitter end - even if does mean upsetting the odd rich southerner with friends in high places.

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