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Wanted: united support for affordable housing plans

Friday 30 May 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard hopes that a new plan to give Dales youngsters affordable homes will succeed - but wonders who will give the project necessary support

MY WIFE and I were not quite run out of the first Dales village we called home: we left voluntarily because we had virtually been sent to Coventry by some of our neighbours because of something we said at a packed parish meeting.

For Sale: the Dales way of life?

I shall not name the village - I've written about it in the past and thoroughly upset some of the decent folk who still live there - but I shall say it was a long, narrow place spreading along a deep valley with houses either side of a small beck.

The parish meeting, open to all residents, had been called to debate the vexed question of building some new starter homes for young couples. In all, eleven houses were planned scattered over a distance of well over half a mile, with one block of three, the rest semis.

To my amazement, the plan was ferociously attacked by a large majority of the people present. Only a handful of people spoke up in favour, mainly locals who had lived there for years - and my wife and I.

The opponents were all offcumdens, people who had lived in the village for less than ten years, some of them only for months. And as we left the meeting, a woman who lived in one of the posher barn conversions came pushing up to me and hissed into my face:

"Haven't you got the intelligence to think about what these houses would do to our property prices?" And there was the real nub of the argument, what Lord Shuttleworth, former chairman of the Rural Development Commission, called "the drawbridge principle."

This is the desire of wealthy middle class people to move from suburbia to the countryside and then pull up the drawbridge behind them to stop others moving in. Their fear: that a few smaller houses, with perhaps noisy young children, might affect that totem of modern middle class worship, the price of property.

We left that village soon afterwards because many of the offcumdens refused to speak to us after the meeting: the woman who had almost spat into my face actually turned her back to me when I wished her Good morning one day in the post office.

She had accused me of lacking intelligence when, in fact, it was she who completely lacked the foresight to realise that people like herself, by snapping up rural properties at astronomical prices, were actually destroying the very fabric of rural life.

This was some 15 years ago and since then, more and more Dales villages have become dormitories for commuters or weekend cottagers. This, in turn, has led to the closure of post offices, shops, pubs and even churches. Many primary schools are under threat because they're not enough children to fill them.

This week, the problem was officially recognised by the Yorkshire Dales National Park which, working with the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward and the world-famous Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York, announced a trial scheme to build affordable housing in the Swaledale area (see News).

The new trust will try to raise money locally - from businesses, organisations and local people - to form a "pot" to build such homes (which, incidentally, was how the building society movement got started in Yorkshire in the 19th Century).

It's a good idea and I wish the organisers every success for, should the pilot scheme succeed, it will be extended to other parts of the Dales. But I have my doubts...

If money is to be raised in sufficient quantities, however, the wealthy will have to make large contributions. And unless the mind-set of middle aged, middle class offcumdens has changed in the past 15 years, the last people they want in "their" villages is the sort who need such homes. It reminds me of an unpleasant practice common in the Balkans. Here, we should call it "economic cleansing."

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