Villages (in Somerset) could soon get low-cost housing more easily. What about East Devon?

Is East Devon missing a trick? How about joining forces with South Somerset to push this through? – Owl

Small villages in one part of Somerset could soon find it a lot easier to provide affordable housing for local residents.

Daniel Mumby www.somersetlive.co.uk

Under current planning laws, housing developers only have to provide affordable housing (i.e. housing sold for below the market rate) for any new development of ten homes or more – meaning many smaller sites get built out without any low-cost option being provided.

South Somerset District Council is attempting to fix this by asking the government to designate most of its parishes as ‘rural’ – meaning they can insist on affordable homes even for smaller new developments.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is expected to respond to the council’s request later in the year.

Under the Housing Act 1985, UK parishes which are ‘rural’ (i.e. those with a population under 3,000) can set a lower threshold for affordable homes – allowing them to seek contributions from developers towards rural affordable homes without approving massive new schemes.

‘Rural’ areas in Somerset already include parishes which lie within either national parks (including Exmoor) or areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs).

Map showing rural parishes in South Somerset (orange), those which could be designated as rural (blue and purple) and urban areas (grey)

Map showing rural parishes in South Somerset (orange), those which could be designated as rural (blue and purple) and urban areas (grey) (Image: Ordnance Survey/ South Somerset District Council)

But only three small parts of the South Somerset district currently have this ‘rural’ designation:

  • Settlements within the Blackdown Hills AONB – such as Buckland St Mary and Whitestaunton, both near Chard
  • Settlements within the Cranborne Chase AONB – such as Pen Selwood near Wincanton and Brewham near Bruton
  • Settlements within the Dorset AONB – solely the parish of West Crewkerne

If the council is successful, almost every parish in the district would be classed as ‘rural’ by the government.

Tessa Saunders, the council’s specialist in strategic planning, said continuing under the current system was not an option.

She told the council’s district executive committee on April 1: “The rural designation will enable more affordable housing to be delivered in our rural communities once new policies in the Local Plan review have been prepared and are supported by viability evidence.

“This designation will also help to protect our rural communities from potential future national policy changes that seek to accelerate housing delivery, but having the unintended consequence of reducing affordable housing delivery in rural communities.

“The current affordable housing unit threshold policy does not work for rural areas as it limits the supply of much-needed rural affordable housing and often results in schemes that no longer meet genuine community need.”

The only parishes which would be exempt (and retain the existing threshold of ten homes) are those which are currently classified as ‘urban’ due to their population size – namely:

However, the planned reform would provide protection for a number of parishes on the fringes of growing towns – such as Tatworth and Forton near Chard, or West Coker near Yeovil.

Council leader Val Keitch said: “In rural areas there is a need for one or two affordable homes – and that’s not what we’re getting, and so people are having to move out. Personally, I think that’s unfortunate.”

The district executive committee voted unanimously to approve the plans, with MHCLG expected to respond to the council’s request in the coming months.