Sir William Worsley

Affordable housing needs to be placed at heart of rural communities

A long-term vision is vital to tackle a critical lack of affordable housing and ensure that North Yorkshire’s rural communities remain sustainable for decades to come, a leading countryside campaigner has claimed.

Sir William Worsley, who is one of the county’s most prominent landowners, has called for a cohesive strategy to ensure housing policies are placed at the heart of decision-making so that the construction of new homes can help to alleviate a host of issues in the countryside.

His call to action comes as the pioneering North Yorkshire Rural Taskforce has staged a summit at Sir William’s Hovingham Estate to try to recruit landowners and estate owners to introduce more affordable housing in rural parts of the county.

The event involved experts in the housing sector as well as senior representatives from North Yorkshire County Council, including chief executive Richard Flinton and the authority’s leader, Cllr Carl Les.

Sir William stressed that more affordable housing, including rental properties, is critical to help young people and families to live in countryside areas and attract a more diverse workforce.

Sir William, who is the chairman of the Forestry Commission and is also a former president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said:

“We need to make sure that there are balanced communities so people are able to live and work in rural areas if they wish to.

“Affordable housing should not simply be built on the fringes of villages and market towns, as it needs to be placed at the very heart of these settlements.

“One of the biggest challenges is allowing these places to retain their beauty and charm while also balancing the fact that they are working environments too, with farming and forestry.

“Affordable housing should not mean cheap housing, as it has to be built to the highest architectural standards so that it is not detrimental to the surrounding area. This is key to protecting our attractive villages.

“This is a major challenge, as it often means that these affordable housing schemes are not seen as economically viable to many developers.

“But it a challenge that can be overcome, as has been shown on the Hovingham Estate. It just needs people to commit to a long-term vision spanning as long as 50 years so that a clearly defined strategy can evolve to help secure the future of the countryside.”

The rural taskforce, which was established last year, has identified the introduction of more affordable housing as one of the key issues to sustain the county’s countryside areas.

The taskforce was one of the recommendations of the independent North Yorkshire Rural Commission, which was the first of its kind nationally and was set up by North Yorkshire County Council in 2019.

Mr Flinton, who is also the chairman of the rural taskforce, has committed to ensuring countryside communities will be placed at the forefront of planning policies to shape strategies for new homes.

The affordable homes crisis in North Yorkshire is particularly accentuated in the county’s rural areas, with the most desirable locations commanding property prices that far outstrip average wages. House prices in the Yorkshire Dales are about a third higher than the county’s average. The average cost of a property in the Dales is nearly £400,000, while the average weekly wage in North Yorkshire is just over £530.

Mr Flinton said: “A lack of affordable housing has long been a deeply-ingrained and difficult challenge affecting countryside communities in North Yorkshire. It is by no means exclusive to the county, but we are acutely aware of the need to ensure that villages have a diverse population to make sure they remain viable.

“The chance to highlight the need for affordable housing and some of the potential solutions that are available during the event at Hovingham was invaluable. A lot of work has already been undertaken and there is still a lot more to do, but it is a challenge which we remain totally committed to tackling.”

The summit in Hovingham on Thursday, November 17, highlighted the need for more affordable housing while also providing expert advice to estate owners and land agents on planning, financing schemes and engaging with local communities. Representatives from organisations including the CLA, the North York Moors National Park Authority, the Northallerton-based Broadacres Housing Association and rural housing enablers attended the summit.

Sir William, who was a member of the North Yorkshire Rural Commission, has overseen the Hovingham Estate for the past 35 years and has placed housing at the centre of its policies, with more than £1 million invested in smaller properties over the past decade.

According to the most recent data from 2019, there are 185 properties in the village with about 55 per cent owner-occupied and a further 45 per cent that are either affordable or available for rent. A two-bedroom property in Hovingham currently costs an average of £700 a month to rent.

Cllr Les claimed that the launch of a new council spanning the whole of North Yorkshire to pave the way for a long-awaited devolution deal presents a renewed focus to tackle the issue of affordable housing in the county.

The new North Yorkshire Council will be established on April 1 next year when the county council and seven district and borough authorities merge to create the single unitary council to provide all local public services.

Cllr Les said: “The opportunities that the launch of the new council presents are huge for North Yorkshire. Not only does it provide us with the chance to streamline the delivery of vital services, it is due to give us more decision-making powers that will help shape policies to introduce more affordable housing across the county.

“This is a massive moment for North Yorkshire to take forward these policies and tackle deep-rooted problems that have affected our countryside communities for so long.”