Byline: Sara Nichol ; Brian Daniel
ACHRONIC shortage of affordable housing in rural areas is plunging traditional village life into terminal decline, according to a new report.
The National Housing Federation claims that many village shops and pubs in the North East will be forced to close down unless action is taken to address the lack of new, affordable homes.
Nationally, it is thought up to 650 country pubs and 400 village shops will shut during the next 12 months, according to a coalition of leading campaign groups.
Now, the National Housing Federation has joined forces with the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and the Rural Shops Alliance (RSA) to highlight the alarming number of shops and pubs closing down in rural areas and are calling for urgent action to be taken to halt the demise of the countryside.
Richard Dodd, North East spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance, blamed the lack of affordable housing on the intense difficulty to gain planning permission in rural Northumberland and County Durham.
He said: "Unless the countryside gets a bigger population, a balanced population, then these pubs and shops will close and will continue to do so.
"Everywhere you seem to go in the countryside now, you are not allowed to build housing. No one is allowed to build and gaining planning permission is nearly impossible without a lot of fuss. Without that permission, there just isn't the affordable housing the countryside so desperately needs.
"I hear there are plans to build 1,700 homes in Cramlington. Those homes are not going to make any difference to Cramlington but they would make a huge difference to a rural area, which is where they are needed.
"Properties in the countryside are very expensive and you generally find it is people who have recently moved to the countryside from the towns that put up the biggest opposition to building more homes.
"A lot of pubs in rural areas just can't get staff because the wages are low and people can't afford to live in the country on those wages, so they move to the towns. It's an impossible cycle that needs to be addressed."
Across Britain, the BBPA estimates 54 country pubs could close within a month if current trends continue, while the RSA forecasts 33 village shops a month could go bust.
The National Housing Federation said the mass closures reflected a declining demand in services in villages where local families - the core customer base - had been priced out of the area by an influx of wealthy commuters and second home owners.
The Federation also claimed that rural house prices tend to be well above the national average, while rural incomes tend to be well below, leaving an affordability gap that has widened rather than narrowed in the last five years.
The gentrification of the countryside and chronic shortage of affordable homes have also made it increasingly difficult for pubs and shops to find workers who can afford to live locally and survive on modest wages.
Monica Burns, the North East manager of the National Housing Federation, said: "Many of the region's villages are in real danger of losing their unique identity as pubs and shops are often the heart of these rural communities.
"Unless we build more affordable homes for local people, they will continue to be priced out of rural areas and the shops and pubs they support will vanish with them."
But the Housing and Communities Agency has provided a glimmer of hope for the struggling rural businesses, by outlining work they are planning to do to provide affordable homes.
Pat Ritchie, regional director for the HCA, said "Rural Communities have particular problems with affordability of existing houses and finding appropriate sites for new buildings.
"We are working in rural areas to develop small scale approaches to sustainable development that maintains the character of rural communities. A good example of this is our recent work with the Holy Island Community Land Trust to help bring forward new homes specifically for local people."
Dr Nic Best, regional policy officer for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "CPRE has always recognised that countryside needs to be living countryside as well as protected countryside so it needs living viable communities in it. That means that rural villages need to be alive and have people living there so that means they need affordable housing in them.
"We need affordable housing in rural villages and we are keen to see that happen, that would be alongside other facilities which would keep the village sustainable.
"We want to see, as the housing federation are saying, the pubs, the shops, the bus services, the health clinics, small schools all viable as well.
"The affordable housing has to be proportionate to the size of the village and meeting the local needs."
For stories on your area log on to www.journalive.co.uk 10 HOW TO HELP SCHOOLS SURVIVE A MAJOR review is to be carried out amid fears that a declining population in Northumberland will force the closure of more small schools and harm rural communities. A working group of county councillors will be given the task of investigating the likely future impact of demographic change on the demand for school places across the county. It will try to identify how many schools are at risk of closure because of falling rolls and how council policies - such as in new housing development - can help tackle the problem. The review has been sparked by the recent decisions by governors to seek the closures of Milfield First School, where pupil numbers had dropped to seven, and Chatton First school, where numbers fell to eight.
It will investigate the impact of population trends on demand for school places in both rural and urban areas, as falling rolls are common to both. This week the county council's family and children's services overview and scrutiny committee will agree the scope of the review, which will be led by committee chairman Richard Dodd - who is also regional director of the Countryside Alliance. Yesterday Coun Dodd said: "Since we agreed to close Milfield First School because of falling pupil numbers I have realised that there are an awful lot more schools potentially heading for the same precipice. This is a problem for both rural and urban schools, but it is symptomatic of the massive decline of rural areas. "In rural areas there are less working families, fewer farmworkers and fewer children. Schools are paid per head of pupils and if numbers are falling we have got problems. In general, the more remote a school is the higher the risk of closure.
"The review will aim to find out how big this problem is, in terms of shifts of population out of the countryside, and look at whether we have too many schools. It is time we had a look at this, otherwise we will be trying to put the fire out rather than prevent it starting." Coun Dodd said the review would look into whether the provision of rural business parks and the construction of live/work houses would help bolster rural schools and communities by attracting working families. A county council spokeswoman said: "This review is in response to a general trend of fewer children in the system overall. In light of the closures of Milfield and Chatton First Schools we want to do everything possible to protect schools in Northumberland.
" Members of the review working group will collect evidence about population trends and school rolls, and produce a report and findings within six months. The review will seek to identify trends in demand for school places, pinpoint schools at risk of closure and highlight strategies and actions which can support the future sustainability of schools and communities. Key lines of inquiry will include predictions of likely school numbers, whether there are alternative methods of school organisation and help schools to develop 'survival packages'.Unless we build more affordable homes for local people, they will continue to be priced out
UNDER THREAT Milfield in Northumberland has already lost its post office. Now its school is to close. VILLAGES ARE IN DANGER Monica Burns of the NHF.…