Country houses in need of attention

It doesn’t sound like the beginnings of a radical change – but
surprises do happen. The government has just set up the Affordable
Rural Housing Commission. It was promised in Labour’s manifesto and
will report next March.

The good news is that Elinor Goodman, the former political editor
of Channel Four News, has been appointed its head. She knows how
government and its civil servants work; she’s a country woman and
she’s determined. She was also a trustee of the Wiltshire Community
Foundation, raising money for groups dealing with rural

Last year, the charity Shelter reported that for every new
affordable house built in the countryside, almost eight were lost
through the right to buy. Jim Knight, MP for South Dorset and rural
affairs minister has reported that there are villages in his
constituency where former council houses are now predominantly
second homes.

Five years ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation commissioned 10
excellent reports as part of its Action in Rural Areas Programme.
What emerged is that social exclusion and high rates of poverty are
rendered invisible by the metropolitan belief that the countryside
is a rural idyll.

Researchers discovered, in addition to a lack of housing, that low
pay, insecure employment, lack of transport; inadequate child care
resulted in one in three living in poverty (figures for the late
1990s). At the same time pride also meant a low take-up of

Among the recommendations the JRF made to speed regeneration and
encourage social inclusion were government grants to allow the
unemployed to buy their own cars; means-tested help with road tax
and car insurance and fuel duty used to directly subsidise public
transport and keep village shops and post offices open.

One young unemployed woman said: “The JobCentre doesn’t look on you
favourably if you’re looking for work, live in a village and have
no car…your chance of a job is almost zero. And no job, no money
for a car.”

Goodman’s remit is to ensure that rural people and their grown up
children have decent roofs over their heads. A check has to be made
on the way that the countryside is turning into an exclusive estate
for the well to do.

But she is media savvy so perhaps the findings of the Commission
will prompt a whole range of anti-poverty measures that permit
those in the countryside to enjoy the standard of rural living that
– so far – exists only in the imaginations of their city

Yvonne Roberts

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