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Rural villages becoming 'rich people's ghettos'

Efforts to preserve our ‘picture postcard’ image of the countryside are creating exclusive rural communities, according to a leading expert on rural housing.

Newcastle University’s Professor Mark Shucksmith, who has been working in this field for 30 years, says our countryside is becoming more and more socially exclusive, creating ‘rich people’s ghettos’ where poorer people are literally driven out due to spiralling house prices.

Affordable rural housing is essential to the vitality and sustainability of rural areas and is also crucial for less prosperous members of rural societies to thrive. However, despite efforts over more than 25 years, the situation is getting worse.

Average house prices in rural areas exceed those in urban areas of England by around 25%, and the smaller the village, the higher the price: houses in these areas cost nearly 11 times the average household income.

“It should be no surprise to us that powerful groups prevail in designing rural policy and planning, and that less powerful groups are generally excluded from decisions,” said Professor Shucksmith. “However, what is surprising is there is also a hidden dimension where people’s perceptions are shaped in such a way that they accept the status quo as natural or inevitable.

“Paradoxically, this means even those who desperately need affordable rural housing find themselves conforming to the idea that the countryside has to be protected ‘for its own sake’ and that it is natural and fair that it is not built upon.”

Professor Shucksmith says that often the language used around the subject is particularly emotive, such as ‘concreting the countryside’, which helps to support this belief. He also suggests that there are misconceptions about how much of our countryside is actually built on, with many people believing it to be 50-75%, when in fact the true figure is more like 10%.

“Beyond the question of who is acceptable to join a rural community, there are issues of fairness and social justice,” he said. “Rural communities are often proclaimed by those who live there as inclusive and neighbourly, but it seems they often prevent the new housing which would enable poorer and middle income groups to share the rural idyll.

“People’s housing opportunities are crushed and their life-chances diminished by the failure to build sufficient houses in rural Britain. At the same time, many richer rural residents gain substantially through enhanced property values, and their distance from poverty, crime, hunger and squalor becomes ever greater. This not only separates people from disadvantage but also causes it. Ultimately, our exclusive countryside is a question of values for each and every one of us.”

Professor Shucksmith suggests a better balance needs to be struck between environmental and social sustainability in the Government’s controversial National Planning Policy Guidelines to help improve the situation.

His research is featured in the upcoming book Faith and the Future of the Countryside (due to be published in March 2012 by Canterbury Press).

published on: 3 January 2012