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Affordable rural housing - V - the drawbridge effect

Friday 29 October 2004

Our rural affairs commentator John Sheard examines a proposal which could provide affordable housing for young country folk - but wonders if the neighbours would allow it to happen

IT IS now almost 15 years since I was made aware of a looming housing crisis in the countryside by a man who knew what he was talking about: Lord Shuttleworth, then chairman of the Rural Development Commission, which had been tackling rural problems for almost a century.

The owner of an estate on the borders of the Yorkshire Dales at Leck, near Kirkby Lonsdale, he had become increasingly worried that country folk were being driven out of their villages by wealthy incomers and he told me:

Nice place to live – if you can afford it.

"The English dream of roses round the cottage door will soon be gone for most people. For a start, houses will be too expensive. But there will be another factor too: there will be no tradesmen left in the countryside to mend a leaking tap or repair a loose roof tile. To get these services, many people will have to move back to the towns."

In those intervening 15 years, there have been two huge property booms: the one under Maggie Thatcher, which ended in tears for tens of thousands of couples left in the negative equity trap, and the present one, which may be showing signs of coming to an end too.

For most people in the Yorkshire Dales, the boom of the past three years has verged on sheer insanity. Some properties have tripled in value in that time. It is now virtually impossible to buy a house in the Dales for less than £250,000.

In the towns, things are a little better. Figures were released this week to show a large increase in new homes being built on so-called brownfield sites. This is to be doubly welcomed, for it is reclaiming derelict urban areas and easing pressure on people wanting to move to the country.

However, in the meantime, the rural housing situation has gone from bad, past worse to downright disastrous for so-called ordinary folk in the Dales who would love to set up home in the villages where they were born and where, quite often, their families have lived for generations.

But what young couple, living in rented accommodation (if they can find it!) can afford to save up a deposit of say £25,000 - and pay a £225,000 mortgage? The answer to that is, virtually zero (a much ruder phrase comes to mind).

This week, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Yorkshire branch praised the urban brown site building programme but asked why not such yardsticks should be applied in the countryside. What was wrong with a disused piggery being turned into a few affordable dwellings, asked CLA Yorkshire director Dorothy Fairburn.

A good question. One answer the CLA provided itself: planners had a "stranglehold" on such developments. But there is also another factor at work here and, sadly, a potent one.

This Lord Shuttleworth used to sum up as the "drawbridge effect." This, he explained, was the reaction of many newcomers to the countryside who, once they had settled in, wanted to pull up the drawbridge behind them to stop others following.

There is a bitter row underway at present in that lovely village of Earby, near Skipton, where villagers are divided over proposals to building housing on a disused tannery on the edge of the village. It is archetypal of similar rows that have been going on for well over a decade.

But unless we can house our young folk somewhere, our villages are going to die anyway - or at least ossify into quaint rural museums peopled by rich retirees or weekenders. These people had better be good at DIY, because there will not no-one for miles to fix that leaking roof or broken window!

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