25th January 2019
With recent research showing there are more than 2,000 villages in England classified as unsustainable for growth, Matthew Woodhead, director at DHA, the Maidstone-based planning and transport consultancy, asks: what can be done to reverse the situation and are we missing a trick when it comes to bringing forward new homes for these communities?
Analysis of 70 local plans by the Countryside Landowners Association (CLA) identified 2,154 villages across England as judged to be unsustainable, leading the organisation which represents owners of land, property and business to call for planning criteria to be updated.
The tag of unsustainable can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It often means that housing allocations, including the delivery of affordable homes in these communities is either highly restricted or not permitted, further exacerbating the rural housing crisis by reducing supply and inflating prices.
Ironically, it is these new homes that could help sustain these communities by reinvigorating the local public house, village shop or primary school, whether by young people arriving in a village and older residents remaining.
When it comes to developing their Local Plans, many councils set about producing a Hierarchy of Settlements document, measuring each community against a series of criteria, usually services and amenities. The end result is a league table with the higher a settlement’s ranking the more sustainable it is considered, and therefore the case for it being a potential location for news is greater.
This approach reinforces the problem by earmarking new residents into those communities already well-served with services at the expense of the others, consigning them to no growth, development or investment.
The CLA has also highlighted that only 18% of local authorities consider broadband availability as a factor in determining sustainability. This clearly shows that many councils have not kept pace with changing technologies and overlooked what it can mean for communities.
At the heart of the issue is the question: what do we want these communities to be in the future and how can we sustain them?
Often the call is to provide more housing and employment opportunities for young people, helping them to remain in the local area and underpin small communities.
However, that fails to recognise the positive and dynamic role that our older residents can play in delivering a healthy housing market. Too often elderly people want to downsize to smaller homes, but due to a lack of choice in their immediate area, they often have to stay put.
The knock-on effect is that these larger homes, perfect for young families, remain the inefficient homes of an elderly couple, only vacated when the remaining spouse goes into care or passes away.
A recent Kent planning appeal backs up this suggestion. Retirement Villages West Malling was granted outline permission on appeal for the development of 79 extra care units, comprised of flats and cottages, plus associated community facilities, parking, open space, and landscaping on a site near West Malling.
In his decision letter, the planning Inspector ruled that the scheme’s contribution to housing need helped to provide the “very special circumstances” needed to outweigh the development’s harm to the green belt.
The ruling was that this retirement scheme would make a contribution to housing need by the “consequential release onto the market of family housing as older residents move to the proposed development”. The case was further strengthened by the local authority being unable to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.
As a result, retirement villages will now increasingly need to be seen by local authorities as part of the solution to delivering a more sustainable local housing mix offering greater emotional and physical wellbeing to residents than if they were to live at home or simply enter a care home.
Retirement villages offer a real spirit of community. They help to retain elderly residents’ links to a village that they have known for probably all their lives, and at the same time free up existing homes to meet demand for families.
Ranging in size from a minimum of 60 up to 150 units, these retirement villages offer a very diverse range of care, from properties with their own front doors, through to assisted living and dementia care.
With operators eager to secure these developments close to a village centre, preferably in walking distance and on existing bus routes, it is clear to see how they can have a positive impact on residents and a settlement’s long-term viability.
DHA have secured permissions for many such facilities across the south of England. These have included retirement villages, extra care facilities, assisted living, traditional care homes and specialist dementia/autism homes. These have been for private developers, institutions and Registered Providers alike.
The conclusion has to be that, with an ageing population, retirement villages offer a more sustainable community. These reinvigorated villages can sustain new, smaller scale developments if there’s a housing need, and in turn support more local facilities.