Only one in six rural councils made use of affordable housing option

Only 17% of rural local planning authorities have made use of Rural Exception Sites, a planning policy mechanism designed to boost the supply of affordable housing in rural areas, finds a new study by UCL researchers in association with the Rural Housing Network.

Rural Exception Sites were introduced in England in 1991 to enable the development of affordable homes on underdeveloped land that would otherwise be restricted for residential development. The sites have the potential to provide much needed affordable housing amidst the escalating rural housing crisis. In 2022 rural rough sleeping increased by 24% and 300,000 people were on rural social housing waiting lists.

The report published by the English Rural Housing Network found that out of 145 rural local authorities, only 25 used Rural Exception Sites to deliver affordable homes between 2021 and 2022, resulting in 546 homes being built. The report reveals that in the same period, Rural Exception Sites could have been used to develop nearly 3,000 new affordable homes in rural areas.

The research also looked at some of the reasons why Rural Exception Sites haven’t been fully utilised and outlines a number of recommendations to help deliver affordable homes in rural areas.

Following a nationwide survey of local planning authorities, the study identified limited resources in planning departments, rising land costs, outdated development plans, and local opposition as common barriers to delivering affordable homes through Rural Exception Sites. These challenges were intensified by the long-standing financial disparity in rural areas.

To tackle these challenges, the report lays out several strategic recommendations for local planning authorities, policy makers and housing providers.

The recommendations include emphasising the importance of engaging with local communities early in the development process to garner support, as well as increasing the support and resources for the Rural Housing Enablers scheme. Where Rural Housing Enablers exist and are governed effectively, the delivery of Rural Exception Sites is systematically higher.

In addition, the report recommends encouraging stronger partnerships between local authorities, developers, and communities, calling for policy adjustments, such as updating the National Planning Policy Framework, and advocating for additional funding and resources for rural planning authorities to effectively manage and support Rural Exception Site projects.

Lead researcher Professor Nick Gallent (UCL Bartlett School of Planning) said: "The under-use of Rural Exception Sites by some councils is a lost opportunity to tackle the rural housing crisis. By fostering knowledge, planning support, community partnership, and the dedication of Rural Housing Enablers, we can significantly enhance these vital resources for affordable rural housing."

Professor Gallent also emphasised the significant role of landowners in making rural land available for community-focused housing and highlighted previous research with English Rural.

Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, said: "The severe shortage of new affordable homes is felt acutely in rural communities, with local businesses and services put at risk when people can’t afford to live in their local area. When a shop, or a pub or a post office closes in a rural area, it has a negative impact on the community.

"The experiences of so many rural communities offer stark examples of what happens when the housing market doesn’t meet local need. This research highlights a key route to help solve this issue. However, it also highlights the immense resource and funding pressures on local authorities across the country. We are urging policy makers and stakeholders to consider these recommendations and work together to help tackle the rural housing shortage."

Mike Lucibella

  • E: m.lucibella [at]
  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000