As part of Rural Housing Week I recently visited Southwestern Housing Society to see first-hand how housing associations are making a real difference in the face of a multi-faceted rural housing crisis.
Chloe McLaren Webb is a Policy Officer at the National Housing Federation
29 September 2016
Meeting housing need
There are nowhere near enough homes being built in the South West – last year 6,500 too few homes were built to keep up with demand. And the need for affordable homes to rent is particularly acute in a rural region where house prices are high and incomes are relatively low.
With an existing stock of just over 600 homes and 50 more in the pipeline, Southwestern Housing Society (SWHS) is a small association with big ambitions. The majority of this building is on rural exception sites in small communities – and though this is an approach that’s well established in rural areas I was really struck both by the extra mile that SWHS goes to make this type of development work and the real impact that well designed and well placed new homes can have in rural areas.
I was particularly impressed by the array of local partners I met at Southwestern – teams from some of the 12 neighbouring councils, community land trusts, landowners, councillors, local suppliers and of course, Southwestern’s own residents. This mix of people meeting in a sunny room in the rolling Somerset hills really embodied for me what it is that makes successful rural housing development – a strong sense of community and the recognition that a range of partners need to work together to deliver development that works for everyone.
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are a great example of this, enabling communities to take control to deliver the new homes and services needed in their area. I had a very thought-provoking chat with a local CLT wrangling with a range of issues including how to develop criteria for allocating homes and how to set rents that were affordable to people in the area – key issues where local knowledge makes all the difference.
Affordability isn’t just about rent setting, in places not on the mains gas network many residents struggle with high heating costs and this is another area where housing associations can make a real difference to their customers. At Southwestern’s Rookbridge development it was great to see solar panels covering the roofs of both homes and the association’s HQ. One resident was completely over the moon about his air source heat pump system which provided him with such cheap and reliable heating compared to his old oil boiler. Though heat pumps have a reputation for being complicated he confessed he hadn’t amended the settings in the five years he had lived there!
Donna Johnson, Chief Executive at Southwestern, talked a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit of rural people and organisations. The range of community services operating in the region are a clear example of this. As well as the dedication of local volunteers many of these services are supported by donations from Southwestern – including the Lympsham village shop, a volunteer bus service in Totnes, and wifi provision in the village hall at St Giles in the Heath.
All of these services are vital to the people they serve, emphasising again what an important role rural housing associations play in supporting sustainable and successful rural communities.