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Wrekin's Wayne Gethings talks about Rural Housing Week

Last week, as part of his speech in the West Midlands, Prime Minister Boris Johnson referenced the Affordable Housing Plan and the importance of building homes for those who truly need it.

The housing crisis facing the UK is nothing new, though. It has been decades in the making.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need for secure, high-quality, affordable homes and, for many, support to help live in them.

A lack of affordable housing is often seen as being an urban problem, but it would be unwise to overlook the scale of the problem in our rural areas.

In 90% of rural areas the average house price is now over eight times the average local income. This, of course, won’t be news to the people of Shropshire.

For housing providers like us at The Wrekin Housing Group, the real question is how we can counter the trend and make a difference to the lives of people in rural communities enabling them to access local and affordable housing

This week is Rural Housing Week, which presents us with the chance to look at what successful, and sustainable, rural housing developments can look like.

Rural Housing week is organised each year by the National Housing Federation, the Rural Housing Alliance and Rural Services Network. It highlights the importance of housing and its role in the survival of rural communities and services.

This year, against the backdrop of COVID-19, there is an added emphasis on the importance of communities coming together to help alleviate the challenges we have all faced.

And engaging with existing communities, and building new ones, has to be central to the development of our homes.

These have been, and continue to be, testing times. Most households and businesses have felt the impact of the pandemic and the economic ills are likely to linger long into the future.

What we have seen, though, is many acts of kindness and togetherness between neighbours and local organisations. People have been going the extra mile to keep friends and relatives safe, and a number of us have supported local businesses when they were forced to close, or adapt their services. This has been particularly noticeable in rural areas.

That strength of community is vital to how we recover and should be central to our approach to building new homes.

Too often, developers look to build more lucrative 'high-end' homes, doing little to alleviate the need for affordable housing and protect the local economy.

As a socially minded organisation, we provide over 13,000 homes for affordable rent and low cost home ownership across Telford & Wrekin, Shropshire and Staffordshire. Our ethos is to develop homes that truly benefit the local community and we have put in extra steps to make sure that it does.

When working in rural areas, we feel it is our duty to safeguard communities and the future of our countryside to ensure our villages and market towns can support dynamic economies – with healthy, happy people living in great, affordable homes.

This means creating homes that don’t price families out of the market. For younger families, it gives them a realistic chance of getting onto the property ladder in rural areas. It allows people to stay close to their families, or have the option for a more rural life without having to pay extortionate prices.

If we want our rural economies to recover, and then flourish, being able to attract younger people to live and work in our villages will be essential.

It also means providing residential options for our more vulnerable friends and relatives. The impact on them in the last few months has been stark. Anyone who has been distanced from family members is very aware of how vital supported living can be, and how beneficial it can be to have such options locally.

In High Ercall, Shropshire, you will find Ridgway, a Wrekin Retirement Living development of 60 bungalows. The scheme, which has previously won a national award for ‘The Best UK Rural Retirement Housing Scheme’, provides a lifeline for it residents, both through the affordable housing and the social hub which brings together residents and the local community to socialise and make new friends.

This model should be the focal point of the Affordable Housing Plan. It responds to a precise need for the area and was developed alongside the local community.

Furthermore, investing in new affordable homes can be a shot in the arm for the regional economy. It creates jobs, and smart development can use it as a chance to benefit the local area for long after the construction work has stopped.

For example, contractually we request that for every £1m of build contract - our contractors employ at least one local apprentice or trainee position.

Our investment in new housing stock in 2018/19 generated 538 jobs, including 24 apprentices, and over £58m to the wider economy.

So while ‘build, build, build’ is a positive sentiment, what we build, and where we build it, is key. Done right, it can help to combat the housing crisis, and sustainable, affordable housing for our rural communities has to be at the centre of that plan.

#RuralCommunitiesTogether #RuralHousingWeek

6th July 2020