I am delighted to see so many of you here today and I am hugely grateful to you for coming along and taking part.
Now, the reason I have asked – or dragged – you all here is because I happen to think that the lack of affordable rural housing is one of the most important issues facing the countryside. As you probably know, I spend quite a lot of time travelling all over the country and when I meet those who live and work in rural communities the difficulty of finding somewhere to live is clearly one of their main worries.
In recent years, property prices have spiralled out of the reach of many people who work locally and whose families have formed part of the community in our towns, villages and hamlets for generations. They are being forced to leave for towns and cities and when they go they take with them the children on whom village schools depend, the business on which village shops and pubs survive, key workers without whom local services cannot survive and, above all, the history and that sense of community which makes our countryside such a special place.
As President of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, I have heard first-hand just how desperate the situation is. Even if new entrants to farming manage to acquire land, finding a house to live in is virtually impossible. Indeed, often they are living in the towns commuting out to their landholdings, whilst those living in the country are commuting into the towns to work – and they literally pass each other on the road in the mornings and evenings.
It is true that there are no nationally agreed figures on the scale of need for affordable rural housing. However, The Countryside Agency has estimated a need over a ten year
period for about 10,000 new homes each year and half of these are needed for settlements of below 3,000, where it is often most difficult to provide small developments.
The problem is huge and it is going to require a monumental effort from everyone involved in our rural communities to make any kind of impact. That is why I am launching today this affordable rural housing initiative, a partnership between some of the most influential organizations in this area - The Housing Corporation, The Countryside Agency and Business in the Community – and the result of a meeting I held to bring all the main players together in January this year. I am particularly touched that The Duke of Westminster, with whom I discuss these matters regularly and who shares my concerns, and has also expressed his wish to be a part of what we are trying to do.
The lack of social housing is something which has in fact concerned me for many years. Some of you may have heard of Poundbury, a Duchy of Cornwall development on the edge of Dorchester where, from the beginning, I insisted on a mix of privately-owned and affordable homes equally well-designed and built.
Out of a total of 280, there are now 62 rented affordable houses managed by the Guinness Trust – without whose willingness to help and enthusiasm in the first place very little would have happened. A further 92 are being developed. The important point is that they are not in a ghetto, but integrated with private homes, offices and factories making it a living, breathing community in which all the residents can share a sense of pride and where people are happy to live. It seems to be far more of a success than some people originally thought and we are now working on a new scheme to see whether we can make self-build and shared equity a possibility for key workers, first-time buyers and others in need.
But schemes such as this barely scratch the surface of the problem, which is why I am so glad to be launching two documents today and making two announcements.
The first booklet, ‘Affordable Rural Housing: an opportunity for farmers and landowners’, has been produced by The Housing Corporation, The Countryside Agency and The Country Land and Business Association to encourage landowners to consider releasing land for social housing, and then to guide them through the issues and to the organizations who can provide the solutions. It has a number of case histories to show what can be achieved which should reassure those who thought the problems insurmountable.
Linked to this is my first announcement. I am acutely aware that, as Duke of Cornwall, I am a substantial landowner myself and that I personally have a role to play. Over the years, in addition to Poundbury, we have already managed some successful schemes, including one at Stoke Climsland in Cornwall where the Guinness Trust has built a 12 home development using Cornish stone. However, I recognize the need to do more.
During the course of this year I have asked the Duchy to identify where there might be opportunities for land on the estate to be considered for affordable housing under the exceptions policy and I am delighted that already we have earmarked eleven possible sites from as small as one or two dwellings up to 25 or more. Obviously progress on these will be dependent on local needs and the views of the communities, which we will consult. But I am determined that the Duchy should lead by example wherever possible.
I have also instructed the Duchy to write to all Parish Councils and Rural Housing Enablers in areas where we own land to offer help with smaller schemes if there is a need for affordable homes, or houses for key workers and local families.
The second booklet is produced by Business in the Community, of which I am President, with The Countryside Agency, The Hastoe Housing Association and The Housing Corporation. Some of you may know that BITC has been running a Rural Action Programme for the last two years to engage the business community in finding solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing our countryside – the ‘Pub is the Hub’ initiative is just one of these.
From my nearly 20 years as President, I am acutely aware of the capacity of the business community to make a difference – even if it is not always realized immediately. And this second booklet is designed to show companies the different ways they can help solve the problems of affordable rural housing. It could be, for instance, through releasing flats above a shop in a town or village, or redeveloping disused properties. For banks, building societies and other lenders the booklet encourages them to consider financing affordable housing, something many have perhaps shied away from in the past.
It also indicates successful case histories which point the way ahead. The booklet – most importantly - also shows professional firms the contribution which they can make as an extension of BitC’s excellent scheme, called “ProHelp” through which professional firms give their services free of charge to community projects. This has worked unbelievably well in many parts of the country and for which I am extremely grateful. The booklet suggests how lawyers, surveyors, architects and planners could help communities, charities or local organizations. Just think what a difference this would make to many small local schemes.
Of course, appropriate and sympathetic design is vitally important for the public acceptability of any development – and this is something both booklets mention. I know from visiting some Housing Association schemes, particularly Cerne Abbas which I opened last year, and from Poundbury that new, affordable homes do not have to be unattractive and, indeed, it is essential that they should not be. They must enhance the community and the quality of life of those who live and work in it, as well as reflect the local character of the area.
The role of the business community brings me to my last announcement. I will be funding in equal measure with The Duke of Westminster, The Countryside Agency and The Housing Corporation two, two-year posts at Business in the Community. The role of these Affordable Rural Housing Directors will be to persuade companies, at the most senior level, to look closely at their estates and find ways to make available land and buildings, including flats above shops, where appropriate, and perhaps empty or under-used premises. They will also perform the role of “terriers”, making sure that the commitments given at Board Room level are matched by the activity of companies on the ground. And I want them, too, to act as guardians of sensitive design and so my Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment will be working with them to that end. To ensure that momentum is maintained I am asking that these two directors present
the four funders with a six-monthly report, and I hope that in this way we can maximize the role of the business community in addressing the problem.
Finally, I do want to thank all those who have made today possible. The Housing Corporation, The Countryside Agency, The Country Land and Business Association, Business in the Community, The Hastoe Housing Association and The Duchy of Cornwall. As I said before, the involvement of The Duke of Westminster, and his generosity, have been remarkable and my gratitude to him is boundless.
I hope and pray that this package of measures will begin to make a difference. I am not naïve enough to think that they will solve what is obviously an enormous and complicated problem. But sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. We have on this platform and in this room an alliance of incredibly powerful people with experience, knowledge, expertise and resource. Working together, I am sure we can continue the outstanding work which others have already started in this area, not least the Rural Housing Trust, and tackle a problem that threatens the very fabric of rural life.