Building on Britain’s green belt has long been the topic of great controversy, as many fear the valuable rural environment is at risk from the encroaching concrete jungle. However, with a considerate and mindful approach, one rural housing association in South Staffordshire is proving that small towns and villages can benefit from developments of tasteful, yet affordable homes on this protected land.
Ursula Bennion director of business development at South Staffordshire Housing Association (SSHA) explains how to overcome red tape on the green belt.
Green belt land was first introduced in the UK in 1935 to protect the countryside outside the fast growing city of London. The idea behind this circle of land surrounding the conurbation was that by preventing building upon it, local councils could keep neighbouring towns separate and protect the natural environment within the area. Since its introduction, 14 green belt areas have been established within the UK and, for many years, they worked successfully.
In recent years however, the green belt has proven as much of a hindrance to rural life as a protector of it. Due to the restrictions surrounding developing on green belts, there has been a marked shortage in available land to build on in rural areas. This, in turn, has driven up property values in rural towns, pricing many local home buyers out of the market. To add to this, land prices have risen due to a lack of supply and housing associations have struggled to find the funds to purchase these expensive plots. The end result meant available land went to cash-rich developers making affordable housing a pipe dream.
“At SSHA we therefore made the difficult decision to apply for planning permission to construct much needed affordable homes on green belt land” explains Ursula. “Without this vision of developing small bespoke schemes we recognised the dire consequences for many local people living in rural locations.
“This decision has however, not been taken lightly. In the South Staffordshire area 90 per cent of our land is rural and 80 per cent of that is green belt. Our roots are therefore firmly established in rural schemes, so we understood how a careful and understanding approach would be needed to make our housing developments viable, attractive and seen as a positive addition to the village.
“The most important obstacle to overcome, we found, was the perceived threat by local residents. Many locals think that if anyone builds in their town or village, it will simply be the start of things to come and more development will soon follow. The fear of the community being threatened by growth can understandably result in opposition to a project. To overcome this, RSLs need to work with the local community, particularly parish councils, to ensure that any additional housing in the area is both sympathetically designed and practical.
“At SSHA, we fund housing needs surveys within specific parish councils to identify the type of housing that will most benefit residents. Although this can be a hefty investment, they are paramount in crystallising the need and requirements of the build and justifying their existence. They help ascertain both the actual and the perceived needs, so the decision can be made whether to build rental or shared ownership properties, starter or family homes, houses and/or bungalows. They also help identify whether care or disabled facilities are required as well as addressing any concerns regarding the aesthetics and location of the development.
“A project we have recently completed using this model is in Swindon village, just outside Dudley in the West Midlands. Thanks to our structured approach using rural exception planning laws, a range of affordable housing has been granted planning permission on green belt land and development commences this month.
“To kick start development in a rural area we commission a rural housing enabler. This is an independent rural housing expert who initially conducts a Housing Needs Survey and then works as almost a broker between the parish council, the local community and the Association.
“Rural housing enablers are usually employed by the local authority, who, upon identifying a need for affordable housing, will contact the housing association and progress a development. At SSHA, however, we took a more proactive approach and commissioned a rural housing enabler ourselves to commence work in the South Staffordshire area and drive projects forward.
“Once the need is identified, our enabler works with the local parish council to identify potential sites before using an architect experienced in rural design to design the development. Once plans for the site are drawn up, we hold a public event for local residents to consult them on the designs and location.
“The results of the Swindon housing needs survey highlighted a requirement for 14 properties, two of which needed to be adapted for disabled residents. We also identified a need for 10 rental properties, leaving four for sale as part of a shared ownership scheme. By taking this approach, local residents could see how the development would benefit people within their community; opposition was therefore minimal.
“To reassure residents further, we only provided housing to people who could prove a local connection to the area. These people could then only buy up to 80 per cent of the shared ownership homes and there is no ‘right to buy’ on rental properties. By doing this we ensured local homes were for local people in perpetuity – a legacy which will be maintained for the future. What this proves is that we, as a local housing provider, need to reassure local residents that building these developments on green belt land will not threaten their local community but will protect it for future generations.
“Much of the opposition we did have was concerning the aesthetics of the project. Many of the towns and villages in rural areas consist of listed buildings and traditional homes, and residents do not want this spoilt by modern and characterless houses. It is therefore essential to design the properties to fit in with the local architecture.
“On our Swindon site we identified the most iconic buildings within the village and asked our architect to work with the local authority’s conservation officer to take inspiration from these homes. As a result, the two bedroom houses look like traditional barn conversions and the semi-detached homes were modelled on the local pub.
“Further opposition we often face within rural areas comes from residents with a concern as to whether the local infrastructure will cope under the added demand. It’s therefore essential to work with local police and highways agencies to ensure the streets and roads will remain safe with the additional numbers of people walking and driving along them. By reassuring locals that their services will not be compromised, much resistance can be prevented.
“Another major concern is the impact the development will have upon the environment. The rural housing enabler should also work alongside local conservation officers to ensure the chosen site does not have a detrimental effect upon wildlife. For example, wetlands, forestry land and wild grasslands should be left undamaged and respect should be paid to local natural landmarks. In addition to this, many people living in rural areas are protective of the environment and are much more accepting of developments that are conscious of carbon emissions.
“All local authority housing must now comply with level three of the Home and Communities Agency’s (HCA’s) Code for Sustainable Homes, which means carbon emissions must be 25 per cent less than those set out in Part L2A of the 2006 Building Regulations. This is a challenge for all public sector housing developers, but it is even more so in rural areas where mains gas is often unavailable. Electricity does not fair well in the code unless used to supplement a renewable energy source. This is because of its main method of generation in the UK – coal. Rural housing associations therefore have an extra challenge when proving a commitment to the environment. However, despite this challenge, at SSHA we were able to exceed requirements at our Swindon development and meet level four of the code, proving that it can be achieved.
“There are many obstacles to overcome when building in rural areas, but green belt land is arguably the largest. However, builders, developers and housing associations must not see this 16,766km2 of land across the UK as unattainable. There is a huge need for affordable housing in these areas and, unless more green belt land is granted rural exception, less affluent locals; often made up of young and retired people, will be pushed out of the towns and villages they have grown up in and community life will be threatened.
“Developing and expanding rural towns and villages in green belt areas can be achieved if a delicate and considerate approach is taken. Rural Housing Enablers can work together with local residents, councils, conservation officers, architects and highways agencies to create housing developments that enhance, not hinder Britain’s green belt towns and villages.”
The need for rural affordable homes has become increasingly high profile in the last few months following the launch of the National Housing Federation’s Save our village campaign. The NHF asserts that housing in rural areas is more expensive than in cities and towns, and is becoming “the preserve of the wealthy and the isolated elderly” it is therefore campaigning for more affordable rural housing, a move backed by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).
SSHA is part of the leading West Midlands housing organisation, Housing Plus Group. SSHA invests approximately £5m each year on a programme of works to enhance tenants’ homes and currently manages over 5000 homes in the Midlands. Its performance is in the top quartile for a number of areas and it works closely with partners to make a difference to people’s lives on a broader scale.