In many Cumbrian villages, residents cannot afford to buy or rent homes, so they leave, taking their families and their businesses with them. As a result, shops, pubs, and primary schools close. And villages become increasingly reserves for the elderly, whose children and grandchildren live in distant towns. We talk about this all the time. But what do we do about it? How do we produce houses which the young can afford to rent or buy? The answer can’t be simply to allow developers to swamp villages by building a hundred full-price houses to subsidise a dozen affordable homes, nor to build new estates of social houses in which locals are reluctant to live. Is it possible instead to build affordable houses without making villages uglier and bigger, and without alienating the residents?
Crosby Ravensworth suggests it may be. Crosby Ravensworth is, of course, a very beautiful village, with its dry-stone walls, its Norman church, and gentle stream. But two years ago the average house price was £315,000 – eleven times the average household income. The last pub was closing (the Sun was already a home). Eight in ten residents had not been born in Crosby. And a dozen families, who worked in, lived in, or had connections to the village, couldn’t afford to rent there. So, instead of fighting against development and affordable housing, the village decided to build themselves. They didn’t want a developer building a hundred homes on a greenfield site. They identified a good place – on the site of an old stone business – in the village centre. They wanted to build 22 houses, rather than trying to squeeze in the 34 which the planners insisted should fit. And they wanted the affordable houses to be larger, more attractive, and better designed than the standard.
There must have been many occasions when they wondered why they had ever begun. Their work had all the intensity, risk, and personal responsibility of setting up a small company. People such as David worked unpaid for two years, putting all their spare time after work into the project. They did it not for themselves, but because most of them had had families, and understood how important it was to keep young people in their community. They learned acronyms they never wanted to hear, encountered agencies they never suspected existed, and were shuffled from architects to code assessors, from engineering designers to surveyors and builders. They were drawn into the strange world of grant proposal writing, agreed to be a Big Society vanguard, and struggled with the sustainable building code. They received a grant from Eden District Council, and one from the Homes and Communities Agency, and borrowed over a million from a charity bank. They were nearly stopped by the discovery of rare bats, and it seemed for a moment as though the money would never come and the entire project would collapse. And by the end, one wondered how they had the energy to continue.
But they succeeded, quickly. And because they did it themselves, there were none of the objections which you find when development is imposed from outside. A year and a half ago there was nothing to be seen in the centre of the village except cracked concrete paving-stones and the bat-haunted quarry sheds. Three weeks ago, we buried a time-capsule (containing a copy of the Herald) in the grass of a new village green. Around us were 12 new homes – all affordable –and available to be rented, or part-owned. They were arranged in a square, with projecting wings and slate roofs – some rendered, some faced in limestone, and some in sandstone: a very Cumbrian family sitting comfortably in the heart of the village, without any two houses quite alike. Between them you could glimpse (it was a sunny Autumn morning) sheep and fells, the community hall, the church. The houses were owned by the village, in a community land trust. Behind them was the pub, also saved by the village, also owned in common.
The houses are not twee. All those individual designs are made from just two standard kits – one for a two bedroom and one for a three bedroom house – arranged in different combinations and facings. They are affordable to build as well as rent. There are broadband ducts ready in every property. The houses are heated by air source heat pumps, with no oil or gas. The residents pay only an electricity bill of 7 or 8 pounds a week (their neighbours pay ninety pounds for the same services). The land trust has ensured the houses are limited to locals in need. There are now tenants in all ten of the rented affordable houses, with 8 people under 18. And a brand new addition was born this Monday.
Now a dozen other villages – Culgaith or Lazonby, Barton or King’s Meaburn, perhaps – could, I think, do the same. Some things will be easier second time round –the pain of Crosby Ravensworth may save some pain for others. Extraordinary figures like Andy Lloyd of the Cumbria Rural Housing Trust can help establish community land trusts. And Crosby Ravensworth has offered to share its experience. Some things will be more difficult – there will be fewer grants available, and communities will need help securing larger loans. A community must still put immense time and effort into developing the kind and number of houses it wants, for the people they want, in the place they want. The government and charitable foundations need to be more flexible, and imaginative, in supporting such schemes. We all have a lot to learn before we can spread this model across rural Britain. But Cumbria, and in particular Crosby, has proved – magnificently – what can be done.