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The contribution of affordable housing to quality of life in rural England

This chapter explores the contribution of affordable housing access to quality of life in rural England. Quality of life is unpacked into core components: stability in home-life (and its contribution to physical and mental well-being), the affordance of social life (ensuring connectivity to networks and opportunity), support for work life (providing the stability needed to settle down, find work, be secure and plan ahead), and access to community life (including opportunities for participation in political life). The dissection of these components leads to an examination of tenure and perceptions of the rights and restrictions associated with home ownership, as the ‘most rewarding form of house tenure’. More broadly, the chapter examines the significance of personal housing security and concludes that affordable housing, irrespective of tenure, is a net contributor to well-being – both for individuals and rural communities. Without it, those communities lose vitality, become exclusive, and lose much of their capacity to respond to the challenges that rural areas will face in the future.

Introduction

The chapter is concerned with the contribution of affordable housing to quality of life in England’s rural amenity areas, where a combination of planning constraint, low in-area earnings and market intrusion may conspire to lock sections of the population out of the mainstream ‘open’ housing market. These areas are characterised by concentrations of adventitious purchasers – comprising retirees, life-style downshifters (many of whom continue to commute back to urban jobs) and second-home purchasers. Market intrusion of this sort has caused a bidding up of house prices in many parts of rural England in recent decades, especially in areas of significant landscape amenity – including ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’ and ‘national parks’ – or in areas of accessible countryside close to cities. These demand pressures lengthen the queue of buyers competing for a supply of homes that is rationed by planning rules which regularly prioritise the protection of amenity and village character over the need to advance housing opportunities and ensure social balance.

Demand bites hardest in villages and hamlets (the smallest, lowest tier settlements) where ex-urban households seek out archetypal workers’ cottages to turn into weekend retreats or larger detached houses with gardens, outbuildings and paddocks that become spacious family homes. Rising prices out-pace local earnings, causing a critical affordability challenge in areas of market intrusion. The ratios between median house prices and median in-area earnings become stretched. Prices decouple from earnings, being instead determined by the influx of mobile investment capital.

This critical affordability challenge means that households which are no longer able to compete for homes in the ‘open market’ look to non-market alternatives – to the provision of community-led, third-sector or public housing either for rent or low-cost sale – as a means of meeting their needs. Without these sources of affordable housing, communities are lost to a neo-liberal logic that disrupts local economies, denies the rights of households to live in places where they can give or receive family support, and produces acute spatial inequality.

England’s rural amenity areas, marked out by intense housing competition, are perhaps atypical of rural areas across Europe, many of which are depleting and declining. However, the challenges they face are not unique. The same pressures, from adventitious purchasers – especially retirees and seasonal residents – are found in coastal and mountain communities from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. It is the combination of intense competition for housing and very tight planning constraint, limiting any general supply response, that makes England’s predicament unusual. It means that in every region of England, housing in villages and hamlets is less affordable relative to local earnings than in towns and cities. Only in London is housing more unaffordable (Gallent, 2019).

In this chapter, I will argue that access to good-quality affordable housing, while only part of the jigsaw of things that communities need to thrive, is a net contributor to quality of life for disadvantaged groups in amenity areas who have found themselves outgunned in the housing market by adventitious buyers. It is an insurance against displacement and a means of advancing both social justice and the wider well-being of rural places.

The first concern of the chapter is to offer a broad definition of ‘quality of life’, which is thereafter unpacked into domains of life that link to housing situations. This discussion begins with home life (and its contribution to physical and mental well-being) before being extended into a consideration of social life (connectivity to networks and opportunity), work life (the stability needed to settle down, find work, be secure and plan ahead) and community life (facilitating outward contributions including participation in political life). The dissection of these components leads, secondly, into a brief examination of tenure, buying versus renting, and the perception that home ownership, as the ‘most rewarding form of house tenure’ (DoE, 1971, p. 4), remains a ‘dominant pathway’ to enhanced quality of life. The chapter concludes by restating the importance of personal housing security, stability and affordability, irrespective of tenure, to both quality of life now and life chances in the future.

The overarching purpose of the chapter is to set out the contribution of housing to rural quality of life, connecting the four quality of life components to individual well-being and the vitality of rural places.

Quality of life

Andrews and Withey (1976) note the ways in which ‘quality of life’ can be either inferred from objective conditions (with an assumed potential to impinge on the experience of living) or affective, disturbing the psychological well-being of an individual in directly measurable ways. The inference of impact on quality of life can be ascribed to many objective conditions, including ‘crowding, decibels of noise pollution, reported crimes, income levels etc.’ (Andrews & Withey, 1976, p. 4). But the nature of the impact on different individuals will vary, being contingent on personal aspiration (for a different experience), making it selectively affective: individuals respond to stresses in subjective ways. The same authors cite Bateman (1972), who notes that ‘quality of life is not adequately defined by physical variables’ but inheres in patterns of experience rather than in episodes of disruption. Relationships are critical determinants: ‘how they stand in love, belonging, hate, respect, responsibility, dependency, trust, and other similar abstract but nonetheless real relations’ (Andrews & Withey, 1976, p. 5).

This combination of experiences and relationships is the critical determinant of quality of life: experiences can be inferred from objective conditions (including the observation of housing situations), while affective relationships tend to require subjective – or psycho-analytical – appraisal. This suggests a boundary between objective and subjective quality of life, with researchers prompted to look for different indicators (hard or soft), but these determinants are inexorably linked: the conditions are stimuli that can be expected, in broad terms, to trigger an emotional response. If housing is the condition, then what contribution might good, affordable and well-located housing be expected to make to quality of life? Conversely, what impact on experience and relationships might poor, unaffordable housing that dislocates people from friends and family be expected to have on personal well-being and affective quality of life?

The objective conditions, and affective disturbance, associated with different housing situations are well known. Homelessness, and the displacement from social networks it brings, results in unsettling disconnection. Those who experience it may find themselves in temporary accommodation, separated from friends and family. Homelessness may result from a loss of employment, the breakdown of personal relationships, from a violent domestic situation, and may be just the visible tip of an array of personal and financial hardships. Other forms of housing stress – of the type alluded to at the beginning of this chapter – may fall short of this extreme, but can still signal a serious diminution of quality of life. Where families experience exclusion from the housing market – owing to the high cost and limited availability of homes – they may be forced to move or accept housing unsuited to their needs. These scenarios can see them moving out of a village to the nearest big town where there is a greater supply of private rented housing or where public or third-sector providers are focusing their resources (usually, in England at least, because land costs and planning constraint make it difficult to supply social or intermediate tenure housing in smaller village locations). Where housing is available in the village, cheaper tenancies may be difficult to find, and so families crowd into homes that are unsuited to their needs. Dislocation and overcrowding (or more generally unsuitable housing) become the objective conditions encountered by some families, especially in rural amenity areas.

This situation is not repeated in every rural area. In marginal or left-behind areas, where rates of economic activity are depressed relative to regional or national averages, income and other forms of deprivation may find expression in substandard housing. And although displacement may not be a critical challenge, the loss of the youngest or most qualified people – who have sought opportunities elsewhere – will contribute a similar experience of dislocation, and potentially of isolation. The availability of good-quality affordable housing offers only a partial solution to these negative experiences. A range of opportunities and infrastructures are needed to anchor population in different areas and give them reasons to stay – wider ‘place effects’ are important. But housing, as an essential social infrastructure, is a major contributor to quality of life everywhere. The goal, in the sections that follow, is to unpack that contribution across the domains of life listed above.

The idea that people’s lives divide into ‘domains’ is not new. Andrews and Withey (1976) sought to separate these domains as a first step towards developing indicators of quality of life, arguing that ‘although not isolated’, these domains ‘were separate enough to be identified and evaluated as a distinguishable part of life’ (Andrews & Withey, 1976, p. 11). In their study of Americans’ Perceptions of Life Quality in the 1970s, they included ‘places, things, activities, people, and roles’ as domains of life. How quality of life is constructed within these domains will depend on subjective ‘values, standards, aspirations, goals and – in general – ways of judging what the domains of life afford’ (Andrews & Withey, 1976, p. 12). In short, they relied on more than objective conditions – measured at distance – to render ‘affective evaluations’ of what constitutes the good life for any individual. In this chapter, I can do little more than sketch connections between housing as condition, broad domains of life and probable quality of life outcomes. The aim is to achieve a general view of housing’s place in this sequencing.

Housing and home life

‘Home life’ is used here as shorthand for that domain of living centred on the home. Home is at once material and social, serving as shelter (with a range of physical attributes) and a place of important social relations and opportunities. Heidegger (1971) drew attention to the wider significance of home where, through dwelling, people ‘make a place for themselves in the world’. Later writers, building on Heidegger’s thinking, have sought to partition dwelling into constituent domains. King’s work, for example, on ‘private dwelling’ (2004) details the conduct of private lives within the confines of ‘home’. More prosaically, thinking on the function of housing has evolved over recent decades to encompass basic quality domains (measured against key parameters – light, space (internal and external), thermal comfort and so on), social domains (whether homes themselves provide the right environment for working, learning, eating and living, and whether the location of those homes affords social and economic opportunity) and wealth domains (the contribution of housing costs to income inequalities and the wealth advantages of being able to access home ownership).

Work for England’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) sought to highlight ‘the benefits’ of good housing (Carmona et al., 2010), noting the foundational work on this subject undertaken by the Parker Morris Committee in the 1960s. That committee focused largely on the needs of families, arguing that

family homes have to cater for a way of life that is much more complex than in smaller households. They have to accommodate individual and different group interests and activities involving any number, or all, of the family, with or without visitors; and the design must be such as to provide reasonable individual and group privacy as well as facilities for family life as part of a community of friends and relations.

(Parker Morris, 1961, p. 8)

The lessons of the Parker Morris Committee, and its broad focus on the social domain of the home, are remembered fondly by housing campaigners in the UK – but have been largely forgotten by policymakers. A detailed anthropometric study of changing lifestyles, and associated housing needs, underpinned its report. It connected basic quality and social domains, exploring the contribution that the design and layout of homes makes to social utility and onward to the well-being of occupants. Aspects of the Parker Morris Committee’s report – published as Homes for Today and Tomorrow in 1961 – have been updated in recent studies.

Work for the Greater London Authority (GLA) in 2006 included a broad evidence review, extending to case studies of recent housing development and interviews with the occupants of new homes in England (HATC Ltd, 2006). This work informed the draft London Housing Design Guide published in 2009, which tied aspects of housing quality, including space and light, to a broad range of quality of life outcomes. It concluded that a well-designed home provides opportunities to socialise with guests and with other household members, and also to share a meal together (it is a social space); it affords opportunity for solitary activity (it is a private space); as an extension to privacy, it facilitates private study, for children and others (it is a developmental space); and because of a combination of natural light, ventilation and space, it also facilitates home working, helping occupants achieve life–work balance (it is a work space).

These are, of course, generic qualities of good housing, the importance of which have been underscored in recent work looking at the functionality of homes during the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic. Carmona and colleagues (2020) have drawn attention to the importance of outdoor private space, living space within homes and internal layout. They also noted the challenges arising from poor physical conditions – from a lack of natural light to a lack of storage (p. 2). Better-off households were generally more comfortable during the pandemic lockdown; others, in newer homes and in social rented housing, were least comfortable (p. 1), with good housing contributing to clear long-term health and quality of life benefits (p. 3).

That study found no significant differences between urban and rural housing, although it noted a ‘deepening’ of ‘community support’ during the pandemic that was reportedly greater in rural than in urban communities (p. 24). That deepening of support was more likely to be reported by homeowners living in houses than renters living in flats. Their study gives currency to the general view that good housing is a net contributor to family life, to the educational achievement of children and to economic productivity. It also adapts to changing lifestyles and needs, in general and not only during times of crisis (Carmona et al., 2010, p. 13). Housing has a profound impact on home life. The affordability of that housing is also critically important.

Affordability is expressed in the relationship between earnings and housing costs. For a defined area (i.e. in-area affordability), it is the relationship between lowest quartile earnings and lowest quartile costs, linking the means of the lowest-earning households to the lowest-cost housing. More generally, it is axiomatic that all housing is affordable to someone (otherwise it would not command the price it does). For wealthier households, the ownership of multiple homes may be a source of rental income and wealth accumulation. For the average homeowner, paying a mortgage at the beginning of a twenty-five-year loan term may be a financial struggle. But as the years pass and earnings rise (or interest rates fall – as they did consistently in the ten years to 2022, only to be sent into reverse by the war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy and inflation crisis), housing costs become a lower proportion of overall household expenditure. Over the longer term, homeowners tend to enjoy reduced costs and the wealth advantage of equity growth.

Long-term renters, on the other hand, may experience rising costs (in the private market) and will incur no equity gain from ownership. The prospects of rents continuing to rise (and having to be paid during retirement) is a source of anxiety for many renters, many of whom aspire to home ownership (MHCLG, 2019). The situation for those able to access affordable housing provided by local councils or by third-sector bodies (England’s ‘registered providers’) is different. Rent rises are less, and more predictable, and there may be opportunities to access ownership through shared-ownership schemes. Affordable ownership or affordable renting, of good-quality homes, will mean income/wealth advantages and reduced financial stress.

Affordability adds another dimension to housing’s broader quality of life contribution – and also ensures the accessibility of homes to different income groups. The delivery of non-market ‘affordable housing’ in England’s rural amenity areas, for rent or ownership, offers a counterweight to the market distortions seen in recent years, with benefits extending beyond home life.

Housing and social life

The idea of a contained ‘home life’ is of course false, existing here only to compartmentalise this discussion. Home is a site of social activity, where important relationships are fostered and take root. However, we can look beyond the home and think about the wider opportunities afforded those able to live in a place of their choosing, close to friends and family, and also the stresses experienced by those locked out of social networks because of the unavailability of housing and their consequent displacement away from where they would otherwise choose to live. Social life is therefore contingent on being able to exercise choice over residential location. With their constrained housing markets and sometimes restrictive planning rules (for the reasons noted above), rural areas can be places of limited housing choice, especially when the exercise of choice is dependent on market power – leading to the rationing of homes to the highest bidders.

One might suppose that wealthier households, able to purchase high-end property in villages, would thereafter enjoy a good quality of life, undisturbed by development and with exclusive access to local amenity. But a lack of affordable housing for other groups will impact on local services and on community vitality, as younger families are priced out of the market by older buyers. Intergenerational inequality suppresses the welfare of entire communities, though most directly, it impacts on displaced households.

Research into second-home buying in England in 2005 looked at the propensity of seasonal residents to retire permanently to North Norfolk District, which contains much of the Norfolk Coast AONB (‘area of outstanding beauty’) and parts of the Norfolk Broads National Park (Gallent et al., 2005). This is an archetypal rural amenity area, with its attractive coastline, historic towns, important landscapes and abundance of natural assets. The second-home buyers had found everything they had been looking for in North Norfolk: good roads make London accessible, but the lack of motorways to the capital adds to the sense of remoteness. However, those who chose to remain in Norfolk following retirement came to acknowledge how their own market power – predicated on London salaries and imported equity from urban homes – contributed to declining housing affordability and was driving the displacement of young people and the ageing of Norfolk communities (Gallent et al., 2005, p. 84). This resulted in the loss of services that they might otherwise benefit from in later life. The closure of small schools, as children and their families were displaced to market towns, changed the feel of communities. It had a deadening effect. Buses stopped running because the newcomers didn’t use them, relying instead on private cars. But most significant for the retiring second-home owners was the lack of young people for the local economy and the struggle to run shops, post office counter services and so forth. Of all the cases studies examined in the wider research – which looked at second homes in amenity areas across England – it was in North Norfolk that the transformation of rural communities was attributed to ‘market intrusion’ and the lack of affordable housing – ultimately diminishing the quality of social life for ageing incomers. At the same time, families unable to compete in the open market for village housing looked for accommodation in the larger towns – places like Cromer and Fakenham, or even outside the district in Norwich. For some, the move was not entirely unwelcome. Better services and getting closer to secondary schools and jobs might well have been positive outcomes. These are the ‘committed leavers’ (Ford et al., 1997). But others, for whom existing social networks are critical to well-being and quality of life, are ‘reluctant leavers’ (Ford et al., 1997) who are unable to stay because of a combination of housing and employment pressures. Young people are the first to leave, often because the housing most suited to their needs – small cottages that once housed farm workers – have now become holiday lets. Pavis et al. (2000), drawing on research in rural Scotland, tracked the housing experiences of young people in the Highlands and Islands. Some were able to secure private lets during the winter months, when cottages were not being rented out to holidaymakers, and then resorted to living with parents and friends temporarily during the summer. Such precariousness in housing circumstances is not uncommon in amenity areas, resulting in an unsettled existence for those households on lowest wages and therefore with the fewest housing options.

Those households struggle to ‘dwell’ – to make a place for themselves in the world – in the sense intended by Heidegger (1971). Of course, there is also contentment and high quality of life in many amenity areas, especially for those not directly affected by these tensions and who are socially isolated from the experiences of less fortunate households. There are many examples, particular in the London commuter belt, of gated communities built on the edges of exclusive villages – where house prices are comparable to those of the capital and where residents are cut off from the wider community. Newby (1980) noted the existence of new ‘encapsulated’ rural communities in the 1960s and 1970s: people from very different backgrounds living separate lives in the same villages, the remnants of the old agricultural community and the occupants of the high-end commuter developments that were springing up on the edge of the London Green Belt at that time. Divisions are perhaps not as great as they once were, and despite the advent of gated communities in some villages, a surge in community activism and the promotion of community-led housing initiatives in all parts of rural England speaks to a shared concern for the social life of villages (see Gallent, 2014; Gallent & Robinson, 2012).

There are now many villages that express the same concerns as North Norfolk’s retiring second-home owners did in 2005: a concern for how rural places work and for sustaining community balance. Balance means having a mixed community able to draw on a range of experiences and sustain a range of services; places where people can be born, grow up, remain and work (if they wish) and ultimately grow old. These will not be closed or self-sufficient communities. People will leave for work and/or education, but there will be opportunities to return and ‘slot’ back into the community later in the life cycle. At the same time, those who do leave will still seek work and opportunities – including secondary education for their children – in a key service centre. A central plank of this ‘balanced community’, which offers intergenerational opportunity to a spectrum of income groups, is affordable housing. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to examine the mechanisms by which that housing is made available, but interventions will be needed that break the monopoly of market rationing. Community and public initiatives will be important, which create non-profit and non-market housing options that enable settled dwelling in rural amenity areas.

Housing and work life

Closely related to social life, to quality of life and to well-being, is the prospect for and reality of a work life that provides people with the wherewithal to live and also meets their aspirations. This is not all about housing. ‘Committed leavers’ (Ford et al., 1997) often seek opportunities that are unavailable in rural places. Their quality of life is defined by achieving different goals, often contingent on life stage, and by the desire for new experiences. Ford and colleagues’ observation that escape is often the goal of young people, rather than securing local affordable housing, is an important one. But at the same time, rural places can offer a broad range of employment opportunities that, when coupled with affordable high-quality housing, makes them attractive places to live. Traditional land-based industries are less important than they once were, but new industries – in the renewable energy (aiding the low carbon transition) and environmental sectors – can provide clear career pathways (Scott, 2019). The hospitality sector is also important, as are a range of footloose or tech-based industries that have relocated to rural areas in order tap into a labour market no longer tied to cities. But the idea of an economically vibrant and productive countryside competes with the presentation of some rural areas as ‘retirement retreats’ (Lowe & Ward, 2009), in which development is unwanted and unwarranted.

For rural economies, housing is an economic infrastructure that facilitates labour supply. New and relocating industries need housing to be built, although they may be content to see it provided in market towns and other service centres. But for individuals, the lack of affordable housing in places that they would otherwise choose to live, and work, negatively impacts on their quality of life. Displaced households back-commuting from market towns to village-based jobs is the essence of Taylor’s (2008) ‘sustainability trap’. The need to live close to work is the basis of agricultural workers’ conditions (i.e. exceptional permission to build homes for farmworkers, so that they can be close to the farm, which can thereafter only be occupied by people engaged in agriculture) in England. This acknowledges that at least one industry needs a nearby labour force, and also acknowledges that since the 1960s, homes suitable for such workers have become scarce – often because of counter-urbanisation pressures and the conversion of homes to holiday letting.

The lack of affordable housing makes it difficult for essential workers to live where they need to live. If their search for such housing takes them away from the village, then this may add to financial stress as commute costs rise (it may also impinge on the quality of social and family life if the commute is a long one). If, on the other hand, they are able to secure housing in the village, it may either be expensive or unsuited to their needs. Households seek the optimum balance between the cost of housing, work opportunities and travel costs. The lack of affordable housing in villages reduces residential choice, at worst preventing people from accessing jobs and starving villages of the workers they need to run essential services – as in the North Norfolk case.

Very broadly, the dynamics underpinning housing access in rural amenity areas – planning constraint, market intrusion and depressed in-area earnings – limit opportunities for work-life balance. The reality of this dynamic helps propagate the quintessentially English view that rural areas are for retirement: that overriding amenity priorities correctly limit opportunities to expand housing choice. This situation is rooted in rural land use policy, developed in the 1940s, which

was the product of an unholy alliance between the farmers and landowners who politically controlled rural England and the radical middle-class reformers who formulated post-war legislation. The former group had a vested interest in preserving the status quo, while the latter, epitomised by the nature-loving Hampstead Fabian who enjoyed country rambling at the weekends, possessed a hopelessly sentimental vision of rural life. The rural poor had little to gain from the preservation of their poverty, but they were without a voice on the crucial committees which evolved the planning system from the late 1930s onwards.

(Newby, 1980, p. 239)

As noted above, work life is not all about housing, but affordable housing makes work accessible and forms an essential infrastructure for employers. Indeed, the availability of housing is a key factor in investment decisions, causing employers to favour one location over another. Therefore, housing is crucial to the economic well-being of rural areas – and to the opportunities and quality of life afforded rural populations in the future.

Housing and community life

In this discussion, I have drawn a distinction between social life – as something experienced and facilitated by access to housing – and community life, to which individuals are able to contribute, and which is supported by a mix of housing suited to different needs. Affordable housing supports social mix, and social mix – a diversity of people, experiences, worldviews, resources and skills – is arguably foundational to social capital. Social capital inheres in social exchange and is, in essence, the power of relationships, or the pooling of the knowledge and resources needed to problem-solve (Lin, 2001). Community projects draw on this store of social capital: for example, where a community needs a community bus to ferry vulnerable people to town twice a week, a group of concerned residents may come together with the fundraising skills needed to secure the finance, the driveway big enough to park the bus, the time and skills to maintain it and the public transit licence needed to operate it. The success of any voluntary action is dependent on being able to assemble the complementary skills needed to achieve a social objective. This is generally true of charities, third-sector housing providers, voluntary lobby groups, community land trusts or interest companies and so forth.

But there is a problem with this positive account of the mixed community working for public benefit. It is also the case that communities without significant social mix – all retired, middle-class, white and well-educated – have achieved significant success in rejecting unwanted change. In England, for example, there are many cases of such communities fighting housing development, including affordable housing schemes, because of perceived amenity, village character and house price impacts (Hewson, 2007). There may have been good reasons for doing so, but the point is that social capital – inhering in either the mixed or homogeneous community – can be a means of delivering beneficial change or resisting it (accepting that whether something is seen as a benefit or threat may depend on personal circumstances and position).

Evidence points to the fact that some relatively homogeneous communities have a unity of will that makes them good at rejecting things, but their lack of diversity limits their capacity for innovation. Mixed communities stand a greater chance of embracing change and being resilient to economic shock. That being the case, affordable (and accessible) housing will be a means of delivering and sustaining that diversity and therefore has a community-life benefit. It brings new people and new ideas to communities and enables their active participation. With affordable and accessible housing, community vitality is enhanced: without it, communities wane. And it is not just about diversity and participation, but also about sustaining essential services – keeping schools open and buses running. When needs are diverse, there will be a market and a need for a mixed range of services. The link to quality of life can be observed at the level of individuals or families, or at a community level.

Housing is an entry point into communities, providing the opportunity for inclusion and the generation of ‘meanings’, and self-worth, that contribute to quality of life (Hughes, 2006). Individuals and families have a chance to become part of that socio-spatial community because of the availability of housing, potentially gaining a sense of belonging that may (or may not) be expressed in the exercise of political rights and activism. Wider communities benefit from vitality of social mix, from the complementary skills introduced and from the dynamism linked to diversity (which may, in part, be agonistic and drive innovation). Taken together, these things produce a community life which is personally and collectively affective. Migrants, and committed stayers, frequently cite ‘sense of community’ as a reason for being drawn to, or wishing to remain, in rural areas.

Home ownership as a ‘pathway to well-being’

The scan across quality of life domains in the last four subsections has alluded to some of the functions of housing, as a living and social space, and as an important node in social, economic and community networks. Affordability has been presented as a condition, or an intervention where non-market housing is provided, that facilitates wider access – to a range of different housing classes, differentiated by stored wealth and regular income (see Gallent et al., 2020; Saunders, 1984; Shucksmith, 1990). Affordability also reduces financial stress on households, which might otherwise undermine quality of life. Housing has a broader role in household finances – and in wealth creation.

While affordable rents, either in the private or social sectors, will be important to household finances, private residential property is an important asset class which bestows a number of advantages on homeowners. Those owners gain a clear wealth advantage because of long-term equity growth – as mortgages are gradually paid off and as house prices rise (as they have done so in most parts of rural England since the end of the global financial crisis in 2009, although there is now an expectation of price stagnation in some areas owing to the unfolding energy and inflation crisis of 2022). This means that over the long term, and irrespective of periodic crises affecting the rate of price change, the home becomes a savings and pension pot, with homeowners’ costs reducing over time. Owners of course bear responsibility for maintenance, but these costs are not avoided by renters, with such costs being factored into rent-setting. While there are many risks attendant on home ownership, owning their home is, for many households, a source of security and important in the long-term plans they make: where their children will go to school, where they will retire, or how they will fund their retirement, and – crucially – how they will help their children financially when they are gone. In the UK, it has been claimed that home ownership ‘satisfies a deep and natural desire on the part of the householder to have independent control of the home that shelters him and his family’ (DoE, 1971, p. 4).

Housing is the primary channel for the intergenerational transfer of wealth, with successive UK governments keen to protect housing from inheritance tax and therefore allow parents to pass on much of their wealth, earnt and unearnt, to their offspring. These stabilities are themselves a source of affective well-being for homeowners, providing securities and peace of mind that are not always shared by renters.

Since the 1980s, and especially since the creation of assured shorthold tenancies in 1989, renting in the private sector has become less secure. The deregulation of tenancy arrangements was intended to encourage ‘new interest in the revival of the independent rented sector’ (HM Government, 1987) by bringing more investors into the business of private landlordism. It achieved that goal, tilting the economy towards amateur rentier capitalism (Christophers, 2020), but also seeded an unsettled and stressful existence for many households, in urban and in rural areas. At the same time, direct state involvement in housing provision was scaled back. Support was still provided to housing associations (third-sector bodies, now called ‘registered providers’), but a combination of land costs and grant reductions produced significant downscaling of their operations in rural areas. This means that, today, many rural households face limited housing choice: an owning or private-renting binary where owning is made difficult by the lack of new housing supply, by market intrusion (and the tax encouragements given to investment buying including buy to let) and by low in-area wages that may not afford households the means to secure mortgage credit. Given the advantages of home ownership, noted above, and its links to important aspects of quality of life, it is difficult not to argue for a significant expansion of affordable home ownership in rural areas, accepting, however, that the advantages of owning are contingent on life stage and circumstances.

Conclusions: affordable housing and rural quality of life

The argument developed in this chapter has been that access to good-quality and affordable housing makes a clear contribution to quality of life across four domains. It is materially important for home life; it situates people in important social networks and is therefore a net contributor to social life; it provides access to jobs and supports local economies; and it is a source of community vitality, underpinning the community life that migrants to rural areas, and also established residents, value.

It is also the case that home ownership has become a dominant pathway to enhanced quality of life for many people, in part because of the challenges that now beset other tenures. For much of the twentieth century, good-quality council housing (built to Parker Morris standards after 1967) offered stability and security to many UK households. It provided them with residential choice and, through a system of fair rent, allowed them to predict costs over the long term. The promotion of home ownership was, in part, a means of limiting state expenditure on housing, and also part of a broader ambition to permit the penetration of global capital into fixed assets, creating new opportunities – through deregulated bank lending – to pursue asset-sheet growth as western economies began to be out-competed by Asian economies in the 1970s and 1980s. It did not, however, reduce state expenditure: this was simply redirected to supporting households cast into the private rented sector (as the public housing sector shrank). Instead, it resulted in the rapid inflation of asset prices and the housing crises that are now apparent across many ‘advanced economies’ (see Rolnik, 2013; Wetzstein, 2017). It would be wrong, therefore, to present homeownership as an exclusive pathway to enhanced quality of life in rural areas. This would be an Anglophone prescription, rooted in the neo-liberal trajectory of housing policy over the last fifty years and especially the financial deregulations of the 1970s and 1980s that gave banks access to global financial markets and therefore supported credit supply, in the form of domestic mortgage lending, and set house prices on their upward path (Ryan-Collins, 2018).

What I have tried to show in this chapter is that affordable housing, irrespective of tenure, is a net contributor to well-being – both for individuals and rural communities. Without it, those communities lose vitality, become exclusive (which may suit some residents) and lose much of their capacity to respond to the challenges that rural areas face in the future. They will need to play a leading part in the post-carbon transition, and they will need the social and economic infrastructure to facilitate labour movement and supply (Gkartzios et al., 2022). The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020/21 produced the spectacle of wealthier urban households escaping to the countryside. It revealed acute housing inequalities across Europe and North America. Its legacy may well be changed working practices and new perspectives on the utility of housing – as a social, work-life and educational space. There is now a danger of some rural areas facing a surge in counter-urbanisation pressure that could impinge on the rights of existing residents if planning systems and land policies do not flex to cope with these new challenges. New exclusions, because of planning and market rationing, risk not only new socio-spatial injustices (that undermine the quality of life of those with less market power) but also the broader well-being and resilience of rural communities – whose futures depend on the capacities and innovation rooted in social diversity. Affordable housing has a key part to play in the future of rural places.

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