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Escape to the country?

It’s a long-held dream for many of us to one day turn our collective backs on the urban – and suburban – sprawl to make a new life in a rural backwater that ideally looks like a picture postcard village from Midsomer Murders (without the serial killer motif, naturally). At MGA we’re proud to have helped more than a few families achieve this ambition over the years.

But a recent study by the Country and Land Business Association (CLA) has brought the sustainability of rural communities into sharp focus, suggesting that more than 2,000 villages in England are at risk of being ‘frozen in time’ as local planning strategies exclude them from being considered for new housing developments. It’s led to accusations that planners are allowing nimbyism to set the rural housing agenda.

Are settlement hierarchies outdated?

Around 4 million people in England live in rural villages and hamlets (circa 8 percent of the total population of the country). All the evidence points to a shortage of affordable housing in these areas which is forcing younger people to move to towns and cities, leaving many communities with an ageing population and the problems associated with social care in the future.

As part of the Local Plan development process, local authorities designate so-called ‘settlement hierarchies’ based on sustainability assessments that look at how settlements score against a list of services deemed to be necessary for a sustainable community. But in many cases, hierarchies produced a decade previously are still in place, and some of the measures of sustainability may be dated, especially in an increasingly digital age – in effect, the parameters that define what’s sustainable have failed to shift and keep pace, such that now the decline has set in and communities are being frozen out.

For instance, access to a pub, post office or bus service still scores more highly than high-speed broadband, even though these services are dwindling (through forces outside the control of village residents, in many cases) and so don’t offer a fixed point of measurement.

As housing sites will be allocated to the settlements in the top section of the hierarchy, those villages deemed unsustainable have to rely on small-scale infill development and conversions, as well as windfall sites such as Rural or Entry Level Exception Sites. While additional housing can be allocated via a neighbourhood plan, this can take years to formulate and even then, there’s no statutory requirement for a Housing Needs Assessment.

Planning for the future

The CLA believes that this approach to planning has led to a ‘cycle of decline’ in thousands of rural communities, as villages fall into what it calls the sustainability trap. Some residents may be reluctant to embrace change but if there are no homes to support the next generation, the reduction in social capital could become a stark reality with an ageing and increasingly isolated population being the norm in some settlements.

In order for sustainable development to address social, economic and environmental issues, it must be progressive, rather than regressive: aiming for a rolling programme of improvement, as opposed to a preservation of the status quo. Instead of predicating future developments on the services currently provided, shouldn’t we be considering what we want our communities to look like in the decades to come? Unless we think about the changes we want and need, our rural communities could be heading down a planning cul-de-sac.

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