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29/09/2021

Levelling up is failing to solve the rural housing and planning crisis

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The government's 'levelling-up' agenda will need a rethink if it is to address rural housing needs, says Graham Biggs

The government has announced a range of new funding mechanisms and plans for post-Covid recovery, to support its ‘levelling-up’ agenda. These have included a shake-up of the planning system through the planning bill, the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund, Towns Fund and the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

The case for fair funding for public services in rural areas predates the pandemic and urgently needs to be addressed. There are huge challenges nationally, with the availability of affordable housing one of the biggest.

An influx of spending won’t change things overnight, yet the question is whether these mechanisms are being targeted appropriately. Our research shows they are not, and that proposals for reforming the planning system will fail rural areas.

Our recent report, Towards the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (pdf), reveals that the geographical prioritisation of the government’s allocation of funding for levelling-up proposals favours non-metropolitan urban locations, while rural areas of similar need are overlooked. Rural towns frequently serve a far wider geographical area and provide the same functions as larger towns. At present, just 18 rural districts are on the government’s priority list of 123 local authorities. If rural standards of living were properly accounted for, the number would be 27.

It’s not just this fund that is failing to meet needs in rural areas. Proposals for zoning and a national infrastructure levy risk leaving many rural communities with little or no affordable homes at all. If rural areas are to thrive, local planning authorities should be able to decide the quotas for and the tenure of affordable housing, based on local needs.

“Levelling up will be meaningless if rural housing needs are not also addressed”

Government soending fails to unlock the opportunities rural areas can offer. Levelling up funds need to be allocated where living standards and economic opportunities are lowest – regardless of whether these are in the North or South, in towns, cities, conurbations or countryside.

If government economic and structural development funds were allocated on the basis of local real incomes, there would be a clearer line of sight from the levelling-up objective through to action on the ground. And more rural locations would benefit from a fairer distribution of national funds. Levelling up will be meaningless if rural housing needs are not also addressed. It’s time for a rethink.

Graham Biggs is chief executive of the Rural Services Network

Image credit | iStock

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