I am delighted to see so many familiar faces here today and some new ones too. I am particularly grateful to the Minister, Mr Keith Hill, for finding the time to be with us, especially as Fridays are supposed to be constituency days – although perhaps it helps a bit when your constituency is just down the road in Streatham!
It is eighteen months since I started this whole exercise to try and find ways of increasing the availability of affordable rural homes under the aegis of Business in the Community and in that time, I am sorry to say, the need has only grown greater. In Cornwall, where the initiative has been working closely with local businesses and organizations, this is felt as acutely as anywhere. In the district of North Cornwall alone, 763 new affordable homes are needed each year, but this year only 70 were built. Here house prices at £180,000 are over 10 times the average income.
Whenever I visit rural communities, and wherever in the country that may be, the message I receive from those I meet is always the same. There is a real sense of desperation about the lack of homes within a manageable price range for themselves, their children or for people on whom those communities rely, such as teachers, nurses, postmen and shop-keepers. And, as I keep hearing from the young farmers I often meet – in my capacity as President of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs – those who want to work on the land are also finding it increasingly difficult to do so, simply because they cannot afford to live near their work. Ladies and gentlemen, community life in the countryside cannot survive on the back of second homes and holiday cottages alone. And the irony is we know that so many people holiday in the countryside, or have second homes there, because of that very special community spirit which they cannot find in the towns and cities, and because of the glorious landscape which just happens to be cared for by the farmers - the very two attributes which are most at risk if we fail to address the lack of affordable rural housing. And so it was to try and maintain this unique social fabric which makes our market towns, villages and hamlets as special as they are, that we started this initiative in 2003.
There are many marvellous organizations which are already doing excellent work in this area, but I wanted to harness the capacity of the business community to use their resources and expertize to make a real difference. The initiative is therefore about engaging landowners, property-owners, investors, lenders, housebuilders and developers – and not just the biggest ones, but the smaller ones too. Over the last eighteen months since we published our first two booklets describing the many ways in which businesses can become involved in providing affordable rural housing and highlighting some marvellous case studies where this was already happening, we have found that there is enormous goodwill among these groups and a growing number of schemes demonstrating just what can be done.
Thanks to the work of the dynamic duo who are leading this work at Business in the Community, Libby Sandbrook and Emily Trevorrow, we know that many BITC members have a large number of properties lying empty and parcels of land that are underused. And, to my delight, many are examining their portfolios to see how they can make better use of these assets. Indeed, only last June I had a dinner for a number of companies with property and land in market towns and rural areas to explore the potential for releasing sites for homes. I have to say that I was delighted by the positive response and I think that we will be hearing from one or two of those companies in a moment…
But it is not a simple process; there are many hurdles which prevent people from doing what they would like. We have found that landowners, property owners and others who are keen to get involved are sometimes short of the right information and the necessary assistance to understand just what they can do and where help exists to ease the burden. They also need to be made aware of where they can find sources of finance, be this private investment or public grants.
That is why we decided to produce two publications to guide people through the process: a guide for landowners: “Developing new affordable rural housing”, and a guide for companies with empty or underused space above or adjacent to their commercial premises, entitled ‘Making use of empty space for affordable rural housing'.
The publications aim to inspire and encourage businesses wanting to become involved in providing affordable housing by setting out some of the options available and steps that need to be taken. They take the reader through the process from identifying suitable sites or properties to gaining planning permission and, of greatest importance, ensuring affordable homes are well designed and of a high quality. This last point is, I think, of crucial importance. It has always been central to what I have been trying to do in the Duchy of Cornwall over the years and I happen to believe it is absolutely critical to public acceptance of new homes being built in the countryside – or anywhere for that matter. When I see some of the examples of new houses which have been built in rural communities in the past I can understand why local people are often so resistant to new development.
Last year I went to see a marvellous development in the village of Kettlewell in North Yorkshire (you will all know it if you have seen Calendar Girls - if you haven't I recommend it!). It took 13 years to become a reality and one of the reasons was local objections – objections which have all but disappeared since the scheme has been completed. Why? Because the houses have been beautifully designed in sympathy with the local identity. Ladies and gentlemen, we will only be able to build the number of affordable homes we need in the countryside if we have public support and we will only have that if we can give total reassurance that these new homes will enhance rather than destroy the local environment and that they will blend seamlessly into their surroundings. That is why you will see at the back of both booklets a reference to my own Foundation for the Built Environment, which will be able to provide guidance to those who would like it.
I am very conscious that the Duchy of Cornwall must play its full part in this initiative, which is why we are trying to lead by example. At Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall has been providing affordable housing since development began almost 15 years ago. We have now built, or are building, more than 150 affordable homes and continue to work closely with the local authority to meet the local needs. One of the main principles of Poundbury is that these should be integrated with the privately-owned housing in order to avoid the ghettoization of the affordable housing, to create a mixed community and to maintain the quality of design.
Elsewhere, on land to the south of Newquay that is jointly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and 14 other landowners, we have recently held an Enquiry by Design, run by my Foundation, which is a detailed consultation process with the community and all the representatives for whom the provision of affordable housing was a major consideration. This is now being transformed into a Master Plan to put forward to the Local Authority later this year.
We have also written to the Parish Councils in whose area the Duchy of Cornwall owns land to see if there are any sites that they might identify that could be brought forward to meet their affordable housing needs. At present some 10 to 15 sites are being discussed with representatives of the Parish Councils, the Planning Authorities and Housing Associations. They all have different criteria that need to be considered and we are benefitting from this experience, but on about half of these good progress is being made with the intention of bringing them forward for affordable housing under the Exceptions Policy provisions as soon as we reasonably can.
I am enormously grateful to those who have worked in partnership with us on this initiative. In writing the publications, Libby and Emily have had the benefit of help from a hugely supportive group of companies, organizations and individuals, and to each of them I can only express my warmest thanks. I also want to thank the sponsors of the guides: Northumbrian Water, Thames Water, Hastoe Housing Association, Allsop & Co, Castle Estates, the Countryside Agency and the Country Land and Business Association. And, finally, I am particularly indebted to The Duke of Westminster for working with me on this project – I know how much it matters to him too.
Ladies and gentlemen, the problem which all of us in this room want to tackle is a pretty urgent one and we have no time to waste. It is utterly essential that we make rapid progress, particularly in the light of the enormous changes taking place in agriculture this year which are causing a substantial degree of uncertainty to those who live and work in the countryside. We need to do everything we can to ensure the sustainability of our rural communities, and if we fail to do this our countryside will cease to resemble anything we have known in the past and we will have lost something that can never be re-created. I for one am determined to do all I can to stop that happening.
I hope that all of you will leave here today with the tools and the inspiration you need to make a difference. And let me just leave you with one thought: if just half of the 16,000 rural settlements in England alone had one new affordable housing development of five or six homes – that's all - we will have made real progress in meeting rural needs. And if one business in each market town in England and Wales were to convert empty space, this could provide over 3,000 homes for local people. There is, ladies and gentlemen, a great prize to be won and, working together – but only by working together – I am sure we can achieve it.