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A question of vitality

British house buyers love villages. And so they should; there is little that can beat the quality of life offered to young and growing families by a vibrant village community. The combination of walkable access to small scale local services the availability of playing fields and play areas, of village greens and country walks, and generally of village life, is hard to resist.

That is why average house prices in popular villages attract such a premium, and why so many house builders, and land promoters, are keen to acquire sites. However, acquiring an interest in a site is only the beginning of what can often be a long and painful journey.

Securing planning consent to build new homes in villages is no picnic. The smaller the settlement, the lower down the settlement hierarchy it is likely to be. The more attractive the village, the more sensitive and constrained. The higher the social capacity of the local community, the more controversy the scheme is likely to generate. 

Little wonder that many in the industry prefer to focus higher up the spatial strategy where a ‘yes, tell us about the detail’ is a far more likely response at pre-app. The prices, sale rates and positive impact that a good scheme in a quality village can have on a housebuilder’s brand can be hard to resist however, making village sites with outline consent a hot commodity.

The key to success is a concept called ‘vitality’; housing in rural areas is specifically mentioned only once in the NPPF, at paragraph 55, which states that;

“To promote sustainable development in rural areas, housing should be located where it will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities.”

The Framework is entirely silent on what ‘vitality’ is, how you will know it when you see it, and how it might be maintained or enhanced. This omission can cause real problems for applicants and decision makers alike, especially those with limited experience in rural development. This is because it tends to lead to reliance on an understanding of policy developed when, for most of the time, the building of new houses in villages was only allowed as an exception to meet local needs, an approach which exerted significant constraint on rural development.

Whilst the Framework is silent, the case world is not. In the five years since the adoption of the NPPF, rural development specialists Rural Solutions has developed, applied and proven a sophisticated evidence-based approach to identifying and appraising vitality and the likely impacts upon it from new development.  The approach has been used to promote sites and secure planning consent for new open market housing in all kinds of village settings across England. It has been tested at over 40 s78 appeals; the learning from which has provided constant improvements. 

Rural Solutions’ work is based on an iterative approach which includes a ‘before and after’ appraisal of the host settlement, its local context and of community vitality. The appraisal is undertaken by looking at the factors that create or contribute to vitality, such as;

-           geographical context;
-          role and function;
-          the socio-economic characteristics of the local population;
-          the fit between people and housing (considering stock, tenure and cost);
-          the incidence of economy and enterprise;
-          the availability of key services and facilities, and critically;
-          the use to which these are put by the community.

The completed appraisal provides evidence which can be used to demonstrate how the proposal will deliver against the objectives for sustainable development set out within the Framework and in particular, how the vitality of the community will be enhanced or maintained.

The concept of development in and associated with rural settlements has been reinforced rather than weakened in the Housing White Paper. Note the sections on supporting thriving rural communities and the intention to encourage local planning authorities to identify opportunities for villages to thrive including a requirement that at least 10% of allocated sites should be of half a hectare or less.

The demand for and value attached to village homes combined with the opportunity presented by national policy makes rural settlements an important focus for the land promotion and house-building industry. Yet, as those with any experience of rural development will know, heightened risk associated with planning in villages and the fact that an increasing number of smaller settlements are focusing on Neighbourhood Plans to contain development, means that a thorough evidence based approach to demonstrating positive impacts on vitality will be increasingly important. 

Rural Solutions is a market leader in the delivery of rural planning and development services to landowners, promoters, developers and operators. For further information please contact Dominic Palmer-Tomkinson. T: 01255 860541 E: dpt@ruralsolutions.co.uk

07 June 2017