We need to get less precious about the ‘rights’ of rural communities.

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on July 17, 2009
Posted Under: Communities,Environment
Low density housing in the countryside. Any bright ideas people?

Low density housing in the countryside.

It has been announced today that just 4 of 15 proposed eco-towns are to go ahead. In the face of very substantial local opposition a host of proposed developments have been scrapped. As anybody who lives in London will tell you, new developments are desperately needed. Our cities are crowded and our house prices – notwithstanding current trends – have been going through the roof. And today it is harder than ever to reduce such dramatic price rises to a question of speculation. Even in this current dip – even now that all the reasonably savvy speculators have started selling – prices are several times what they were 10 or 11 years ago. In reality, hous prices have long reflected a crisis of availability generated by a basic mismatch of demand and supply. As the population of this country has risen rapidly, as families have got smaller, and as people have continued to gravitate to the south east, the development of housing has been straight jacketed. Straightjacketed – amongst other things – by rural communities that are insistent upon their ‘rights’ to be surrounded by roving fields, to which I will return.

Rural activists opposed to the development of eco-towns have found numerous ways to rationalise their positions – some plausible and some implausible. Yet lurking at various depths beneath the suface has been the fact that the proposed towns would contain 30-50% social housing. When East Lindsey District council withdrew its plans to co-operate in building an eco-town in Lincolnshire its spokesman was fairly explicit. “This is a rural area”, he said, “and the people have said that they don’t want a 5,000 house council estate dumped on their back door.” Indeed the language of social  ’dumping’ has been a feature of opposition to the eco-towns.  As tory housing minister Grant Shapps wittily remarked, “All the low-flush toilets in world can’t make dumping a housing estate on green fields somehow eco-friendly.”

Yet the most oft-repeated criticism of the eco-towns project is its failure to sufficiently take into account give sufficient weight to  ’local opinion’. And this really is the crux of the matter. Because, when it comes to housing and rural space, it is high time we got a bit better at riding roughshod over local opinion. Our starting point must be that the approval, or otherwise, of new housing developments is not a communal perogative but a national issue – and an urgent one at that. I must admit that as a Londoner I really do find it difficult to understand why people would wish to live in sparsely populated communities. I have no idea why people are happy to choose betwen going to The White Lion or going to The Red Lion or taking a hike through some grass. Nonetheless I am willing to accept that the desire to be surrounded by roving fields is a legitimate lifestyle preference.  However it is just that – a very difficult to accomodate lifestyle preference. And we cannot continue to accomodate such preferences without regard to the needs of the wider community.

As a little post script I will say just this. We have heard a hell of a lot about rural post offices being shut down over the past few years. Undoubtedly such shut downs should be opposed, and undoubtedly they hit the most vulnerable members of the community hardest. At the same time, it extremely expensive to offer such services to very sparsely populated communities. Perhaps rural communities might consider whether allowing their towns and villages to grow a little in size and density would make such post offices viable, rather simply expecting a blank check from urban Britain.

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Reader Comments


People get so wrapped up in trying to be green that they forget to check whether what they’re doing is actually having a positive impact on the environment. Stretching the topic slightly from ecotowns to agriculture, it’s been shown that unintensive agriculturally managed land is actually more biodiverse than a similar sized “rural wilderness.” This is partly the aim of the the Fens project in Cambridge.


Also, agree with your postscript point re development of rural villages – it could actually lead to an improved quality of life for locals.

Written By Sarah on July 19th, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

Very interesting. Blows out of the water the mysanthropic assumptions that nature does best when mankind does not engage withit, the viewpoint that attributes our species with the reverse midas touch. I certainly agree it would improve the quality of life for locals if they had more people – especially people interested in minority pursuits. The great thing about massive concentrations of people – like london – is that obscure, relatively unpopular forms of culture – from poetry nights to viking metal – are viable. In the accursed countryside this often isnt the case.

Written By Reuben on July 20th, 2009 @ 12:00 am
Jon Neale


I generally agree with what you are saying, however a couple of points.

Firstly, the eco-towns are not that large and do not make a significant ‘dent’ in housing need. They are also unlikely to generate their own employment and so inabitants will probably have to travel elsewhere for work, which brings me to…

Secondly, are they really in the right place? Ideally, you would want to build new settlements in places with excellent transport links, close to areas with employment opportunities.

What we really need are sustainable urban extensions to successful cities (OXford, Cambridge for example). With good quality new train lines and other transport links.

The eco-town guidance stated that they must be self-contained, separate settlements. This seems to me to be irrational in today’s world. It meant, for example, that Birmingham could not propose an eco-town at the vast Longbridge site, crying out for redevelopment.

I’d also question whether current prices are solely a result of supply issues. The two countries which have had similar rates of house price inflation to BRitain are hte US and Spain, which have undergone a massive building boom. The world has experienced a massive asset price bubble caused by the availability of debt. It’s not as if Britain is the sole exception to this global phenomenon.

Undersupply is an issue, but it’s a long-term trend of a few percent – new developments, after all, form a very small % of any housing market and pricing is set in the second-hand market.

Written By Jon Neale on July 20th, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

Jon, you make soem good points. On the question of house prices I am willing to defer to your expertise on the matter. In terms of the location I guess I see the eco towns as a second best option. I would absolutely be in favour of extending existing cities but from my understanding of current planning restrictions/greenbelt etc. that would be even more difficult.

Written By Reuben on July 20th, 2009 @ 2:13 pm
jonathan colwill

we need to re-inhabit the highlands of scotland and also encourage immigration to the falkland islands we also need to stop or limit immigration into the uk and europe .
without fossil fuels we wont be able to support a 70 million population in the uk and citys like london are bound to greatly shrink or disappear much like rome went from a city of 1 million people to a place with I think about 15,000 people and cows grazing in the forum .
The future whether we like it or not will be far more local and rural.
the idea of building more housing in the uk is plain madness we need less housing and less people to be able to survive .
what we should do is encourage new housing if the people living in those houses are engaged in agriculture and if the houses are built with local materials .
we will need to see a huge shift in employment back into agriculture as much more work will need to be done by hand again or using draught animals

Written By jonathan colwill on July 20th, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

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