Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.
Since being elected MP for Remote, Rural and Coastal North Devon in 2019, my mission has been to find ways to level out the pockets of severe deprivation in my beautiful constituency.
For me upgrading has been about trying to get high speed broadband as the main infrastructure investment but particularly post pandemic we have found ourselves in a housing crisis which is impacting modes of rural life.
House prices are increasingly out of reach for local working families in the constituency, and with far too many property sales becoming second homes or short-term vacation rentals, our housing market is out of balance. .
The creation of affordable housing in our villages is essential to their survival, but too often the viability of planning sees rural elements of large developments not fully completed, or community land trust schemes being thwarted due to funding issues.
Some of these projects may now be further threatened by the prospect of the right to purchase being extended to housing associations. This proposal includes a significant promise to replace homes sold under one-for-one, like-for-like purchase rights, but it ignores the fact that villages cannot accommodate endless replacement properties.
In addition, the construction of new affordable rural housing is intended to meet the needs of rural communities. Rural landowners may be more reluctant to release land for the construction of social housing, if such housing can easily be purchased through the right of purchase and sale.
If, as in my constituency, these properties are almost inevitably destined to become second homes or short-term vacation rentals, that rather defeats the purpose of building the property in the first place.
The imbalance in so many rural housing markets has worsened as the pandemic has increased the value associated with rural space, exacerbating the affordability crisis.
We need to find new ways to provide affordable housing for rural people, such as allowing farms to redevelop outbuildings into homes for their own workers and allowing villages to build homes for their own families. Otherwise, as we already see in the coastal municipalities, these rural villages will become ghost towns in winter.
While the Leveling Up white paper rightly highlights the need to ensure that our communities are beautiful places to live, local people should not be squeezed out of the market by those who are wealthy enough to afford multiple homes. The white paper does not adequately address the disappearance of long-term rentals, or how we will actually increase affordable properties in rural areas.
Or what is affordable; when wages are so below the national average and house prices so much higher, 80% of market rates are unaffordable.
Housing associations have a vital role to play in solving this problem, but development is struggling to keep up with demand. CPRE, the rural charity, said demand is growing six times faster than supply and it will take 121 years to clear the backlog.
Developments throughout the Devon and Cornwall peninsula suffer from a lack of resources, further slowing the pace of development and impacting viability. North Devon currently only has 18% affordable housing in new developments.
Additionally, there are concerns about how affordable housing will be paid for in the future with the demise of Section 106 agreements.
In the UK, almost 50% of new affordable housing is financed by Section 106. In rural areas, this percentage increases: in Devon, for example, 75.7% of new affordable housing built in 2020-21 l ‘ve been via Section 106, and for rented accommodation, it’s 86.2 percent.
The lack of affordable housing in most rural parts of Britain is creating a quiet housing crisis with overpriced young people leaving. At the same time, more retirement and vacation communities are growing without any of the services, facilities or staff available to support these aging populations in remote locations.
The reasons our visitors came – our pubs, restaurants, attractions – are far less sustainable businesses with no one left to run them.
As we seek to level up, we must recognize that rural Britain is no holiday park. These idyllic communities thrive on their connection to their environment and the families who have lived there for generations.
That’s not to say they should be kept aspic, far from it – they should become more productive, hence my passion for improving connectivity. Rural communities not only suffer from poor broadband access, but also poor mobile coverage. Far too many people, like me, struggle to make mobile calls at home or live with the perpetual vicious cycle of their computer!
We need to find a way to fix the housing market and improve connectivity in our most desirable rural areas to enable every generation to live and work there, because without these basic amenities more and more villages will cease to be communities.