A better way to help country people

Proposals by the Rural Housing Commission to give local people a better chance of buying property in rural areas will have little effect and could have unintended negative consequences for those they seek to help.

The flight of affluent professionals from urban areas to the countryside continues. With concern about rising urban crime and poor schooling it is difficult to see this stopping. Differentials in earnings between city and country remain so wide, many highly paid professionals find they can exchange their urban boltholes for larger properties in the country.

But locals in the countryside are finding themselves unable to afford to buy in their areas. More problems have been caused by city dwellers buying second homes in rural areas. Ghost villages are emerging where nobody is around during the week or in the winter and local services are suffering.

The Rural Housing Commission proposes that buyers of second homes should apply for planning permission for change of use if they buy a house in a rural area with a large number of second homes. It thinks this would halt rising rural house prices and prevent the spread of ghost villages.

But the Commission fails to recognise that these proposals would just spawn a raft of avoidance measures as buyers circumvent the rules. Suddenly spouses would start to buy properties on their own, people’s primary residential locations would change and elderly relatives would find themselves moving to the country.

With many second homes used for holiday lets, the economic consequences for the areas concerned could worsen as the supply of holiday accommodation dries up.

The proposals also fail to recognise that while second home ownership is a problem in some parts of the country, for the vast majority of rural areas house prices are beyond the reach of locals because of people moving into the area from outside and living there on a full-time basis, commuting into the local big town for work and leisure purposes. The proposals would have little effect in such places.

What the proposals seek to do is to skew the market in favour of local people who are less able to afford to buy. But given the risks the Commission would be better advised to recommend more house building in rural areas if it genuinely wants to help all sectors of the rural community.