I always enjoy returning to Cumbria. Like a swallow, I seem to return each year and I can only say that I treasure every moment in this magical county.
I am particularly pleased to have been able to come to Pooley Bridge. It is proving a veritable treasure-trove. Not only have I seen a marvellous example of an affordable rural housing scheme set amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in England, but it has an excellent village shop and post office, no less than three pubs and some splendid characters too. Little wonder that Deborah Lowis fought so hard to stay in this village.
And I do just want to begin by congratulating her and Paul Davies, of the Eden Housing Association, not just for the presentation they gave today but also for having the tenacity and determination to make Heughscar Close (Hughscar) a reality. It takes very special people to achieve something like this and I do commend them and the Parish Council and the Lake District National Park for working together to create this really exemplary project. Thanks to this partnership at least some young people who have grown up and now work in the local area can afford a home here. Instead of having to leave for somewhere they don't want to live, taking with them their knowledge and love of their community, they can continue to contribute to the life of their community.
And, of course, the development itself is a credit to the village. It fits beautifully into its surroundings and you cannot tell if it is affordable or even that it is new - the marks of a truly successful design. Something that blends in and is truly sympathetic.
I am sure you can all understand why we decided to come here to launch the fourth in our series of publications under my Affordable Rural Housing Initiative, which I started with The Duke of Westminster over two years ago.
If anyone needs to know about the need for affordable rural housing you only have to look at house prices and wage levels in the Lake District. I was shocked by what I discovered. The minimum house price is £150,000. The average income is just £12,000 to £15,000. Now with mortgages no more than three times a salary it is not difficult to see the problem. And this situation is by no means unique to this part of the world and it shows just why the lack of affordable housing is having such a devastating impact on our rural communities.
The very people that make the rural landscape and communities so special, simply cannot afford to stay. Tell me a drystone waller, farm worker, shepherd, teacher, shop-keeper or pub worker who can afford £150,000! What option have they but to leave. Not only is that a personal tragedy for them obviously, but it creates an imbalance in the communities left behind threatening not only the vitality we so treasure in our rural towns and villages, but the future of the countryside itself. Who will look after it, when villages are simply dormitories to commute from or temporary boltholes from city living?
Now there are many authorities, organizations and individuals trying to increase the number of affordable rural homes, not least here in Cumbria, and it was to complement this effort that I started my Affordable Rural Housing Initiative. I felt that harnessing the capacity of the business community with their resources and expertize could perhaps make a difference. We have been working hard to raise awareness amongst landowners, property owners, investors, lenders, housebuilders and developers that this is actually an issue of importance to them and their business. And we have been trying to show them what they can do about it.
So we are now beginning to see the results with small and large companies becoming involved. In particular, I would just like to mention Northumbrian Water, represented here by David Alborough, the Property Director. He and I had a discussion about this over dinner at Highgrove a year or so ago and he immediately saw the point of what we were trying to do. Not only is Northumbrian Water now working with Hastoe Housing Association on an affordable rural housing scheme on their land in Essex – its amazing where Northumbrian Water are! - but they are galvanizing the entire water sector to identify sites suitable for affordable rural housing. This could be the beginning of a solution on a substantial scale.
But even with supporters like this, it is not a simple process nor is it a quick one. It is not uncommon for a rural housing development to take six to eight years to come to fruition. Indeed, a couple of years ago I visited Kettlewell just across the border in the Yorkshire Dales where it had taken thirteen years from start to finish for six affordable houses to be built. This is simply too slow and too costly and ways must be found to speed up the process or a whole generation will be lost to our villages.
So I have a feeling that one way in which we can do this is by reducing the objections of local people who do not want affordable homes in their community. Frankly, when one sees some of the incredibly unsympathetic examples of new houses which have been built in rural communities, I can completely understand why people are often so resistant to new development because too often they do nothing to add to the character of the village and often do far worse.
But it doesn't have to be this way as I have been trying to demonstrate in Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall development on the edge of Dorchester. We have integrated affordable housing throughout and we now have more than one hundred with more in the pipeline. Some are individual houses, or, more often, they are in small clusters and terraces. This sort of distribution contributes to the cohesive, socially-mixed community that now exists. ‘Pepperpotting', as this design method is known, also means the properties are unidentifiable as affordable homes and retain a value equivalent to the open market stock, making them a long-term financial asset.
Now I realise you can't expect to please everyone but the chances are if good design principles were implemented from the outset of any development, even the strongest of fears could be allayed. By involving communities in the design process, as happened here in Pooley Bridge, reassurances can be given that new homes will respect the local character, enhance rather than destroy the environment, they will blend seamlessly into their surroundings and meet the needs of people wishing to live and work in their local community.
And so ladies and gentlemen, having said all that I am delighted to be able to launch today a new publication as part of my Affordable Rural Housing Initiative entitled: “Creating A Sense of Place: A Design Guide”.
The Guide demonstrates the benefits of well-designed, affordable homes through a series of twenty case studies from here in Pooley Bridge to St Margaret's in Kent and Crickhowell in Mid Wales. It deals with the appearance, construction and layout of affordable housing designed for villages and small towns and, equally importantly, it stresses the need and benefits of involving the local community and local planners in the design process.
My hope is that the Guide will be of practical use to housing associations, builders and parish councils, as well as the individuals, landowners and businesses wanting to invest in affordable housing. I hope it can be used to encourage objectors to think differently and to promote consideration of wider elements of design, including maximizing the use of a precious rural site and ensuring the inside of a property can meet the changing needs of its residents. Although it deals with affordable housing, there is much in it, in my view, of relevance to housing more generally. The lessons of good design are equally as applicable to market housing, especially in sensitive locations, such as smaller market towns and villages.
So the Guide has been produced through collaboration of two of my charities, Business in the Community and my Foundation for the Built Environment and I do want to thank Emily Trevorrow, Hank Dittmar and James Hulme for their hard work. I am also enormously grateful to all those who have provided the case studies which make this such a powerful document. Finally, I am indebted to the sponsors of the Guide: Northumbrian Water, Hastoe Housing Association and the Commission for Rural Communities, for now part of the Countryside Agency embodied by wonderful Margaret Clark.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I hope that by visiting Pooley Bridge today, you now have the evidence and inspiration you need to do all you can to ensure that more affordable homes are built in our country villages and towns and that they are designed to enhance the precious setting in which they belong. Time is of the essence and I only hope this guide will help secure the future for many more rural communities.