Nicola Inchbald, Chair of the Rooftop Group and chair elect of the Matrix Housing Partnership


As the recent Rural Housing Week (30 June - 4July) proclaims, there is much to celebrate about the British countryside as one of the nation’s greatest assets. Yet despite the considerable benefits of countryside living, many rural communities face a range of challenges.

Worsening housing affordability and housing shortages, low wages in traditional industries, migration of young people to cities and towns, and local services under pressure are just a few. While many rural communities remain vibrant, strong and growing, others are faring less well.

Housing associations have a key role to play in maintaining successful rural communities and in supporting rural people to find their own solutions to housing and economic challenges. The Matrix Housing Partnership, which includes rural housing associations the Rooftop Housing Group and Trent & Dove Housing, manages one third of its total 29,000 homes in rural locations – mainly in market towns and villages across the Midlands and South-West. So the sustainability of rural communities is very important to us.

We have noticed two trends that are challenging the sustainability of rural settlements. The first is the rising cost of living, with fuel, food and credit as well as rented housing and home ownership being far too expensive for those on low incomes to enjoy a decent quality of life.

The second, and connected trend, is that rural economies tend to be low pay economies making it difficult for those ‘born and bred’ in the countryside to earn enough to access housing, and essential goods and services. Alongside, cuts in local services are beginning to tear into the rural fabric, threatening sustainability.

The solutions to these worrying trends and the destiny of rural communities, as the Princess Royal has remarked, remain in the hands of rural communities with the support of local organisations like housing associations. The essence of this support is for us to help rural communities achieve a full ‘circle of life’ – that is, enabling different age, employment and income cohorts to continue living together. In other words, sustaining mixed communities throughout the life cycle.

The affordability of housing, an evolving rural economy and a sustainable environment are at the centre of what we advocate. An array of local facilities need to be maintained or provided, especially village halls, post offices, pubs, schools and transport links to nearby cities and towns. ‘Community Shares’ is a growing element of rural self-help in developing these facilities.

Also essential is much more affordable housing. Building homes for people who want to return to the countryside and for attracting new people helps keep rural communities alive. The housing association role in garden cities, community land trusts and cohousing schemes is crucial together with provision of traditional affordable and social housing programmes.

To further support the ‘circle of life’ housing associations should also act as community hubs, providing a range of local services. Community development programmes that address fuel poverty and transport issues are urgently needed too. Reinvesting in rural communities for the long-term will enable significant developments in fuel and food production as a massive benefit to local communities in terms of lower living costs and an enhanced quality of life.

Housing associations also need to build-in technology to improve sustainability through low or zero carbon housing, and connect rural people to the global economy – for example, providing fast broadband that caters for all age groups and enables older people to move with the times and fend off isolation and loneliness.

In addition, we need to develop a variety of approaches to develop local enterprises and supporting the rural social economy. Rural-based housing associations also need to create apprenticeships or training opportunities at a higher rate. The building trade is calling out for skilled people so this is a good place to start. And supporting business start-ups, especially micro-businesses, will enable a more sustainable rural economy.

Housing associations, like those in the Matrix Housing Partnership, are helping rural people achieve sustainable local communities and a positive ‘circle of life’ with affordable housing, the local economy and environment at the centre of their work; supporting a countryside where people of all ages and background can live.

This is a summary of an essay written for the Matrix ‘Forging Futures II’ compendium published last week.