Second-home owners are have long been blamed for aggravating the decline of rural communities. In response, councils are beginning to develop ‘locals first’ policies

Viewed from Kettlewell in the yorkshire dales, the argument about housing density in Buckinghamshire, sustainable communities in the Thames Gateway or the infrastructure pressures on the Stansted-Peterborough corridor have a mindnumbing surreality about them. Housing numbers in which 10,000 is the lowest unit of account belong to a debate – in fact to a planet – far removed from Kettlewell. But the housing crisis is just as real in Kettlewell as it is in Croydon: it’s just that it’s a crisis of rural, not of metropolitan, Britain.

Kettlewell is a dream village nestling in upper Wharfedale where the river tumbles down the limestone escarpments from Oughtershaw, Beckermonds and Hubberholme, and the narrow road from Coverdale plunges down the hill in a series of hairpin bends. It is slap-bang in the middle of the Dales national park and more than a quarter of its properties are second homes.

Second-home owners have become almost demonised in some accounts of the crisis of the Countryside. They have been blamed for the closure of rural schools because they occupy the homes young families would otherwise be able to afford and for reducing the clientele for local services to levels below what is sustainable. The government recently permitted local councils to cut the 50% council tax discount on second homes to 10%, the rationale being that the additional revenue would be devoted to providing affordable homes for local people.

The government’s quango the Countryside Agency has reported that the number of homeless people in rural districts soared by 30% in two years, shut out of homes by commuters in the 25-44 age group seeking permanent homes in the countryside. Improved transport meant urban workers on higher wages could work in the city but live in the countryside, pricing more poorly paid rural dwellers out of their own communities.

The agency estimates net migration from urban to rural districts at 115,000 people in the year to June 2002 with an average growth of rural population of 81,000 a year over 20 years compared with 48,000 in urban areas.

In response rural local authorities are beginning to develop “locals-first” housing policies. The Yorkshire Dales National Park is expecting the government’s inspector to approve a local plan which will use section 106 agreements to confine acquisition of new houses to local buyers. It has set out seven categories of eligibility: existing residents establishing separate households; head of household or partner taking employment in an established park business; park residents in unsatisfactory accommodation; elderly or disabled park residents needing sheltered housing; people having to leave their accommodation in the park; former residents with close relatives in the park who need to return to it; and a catch-all classification for people with proven needs.

This will go alongside the construction of affordable homes in sites outside established settlements under the existing “exceptions” rule. The fact that about 1000 homes have been built in the park in the past decade puts the policy into perspective.

Craven council is one of the local authorities containing the National Park. It is also developing a locals-first policy in areas where it is the housing authority. On sites where affordable housing can be ordered alongside market accommodation the council is requiring homes to be offered at a 40% discount to people from the immediate parish, neighbouring parishes, Craven residents and, finally, outsiders in that order of priority.

In Ingleton in the north west of the district, 12 homes in a development of 40 have been so earmarked, taking their price down to about £60,000. The restriction carries through into subsequent sales, which must meet the same criteria. It is discounted rather than shared ownership.

The additional yield from the increase in council tax on second homes in Craven, which is a small local authority, is £230,000. It retains £30,000 and the remainder goes to the county council which is currently discussing the mechanisms for recycling its additional revenue into affordable homes. Similar schemes are being increasingly adopted across England, with the National Parks like Exmoor and the Lake District often in the lead.

Not all commentators are sympathetic. Let able young country people earn fame and fortune in the city and then come back with their money to keep the thatcher, the local butcher, the garage, the Post Office (if there are any left) and, of course, the pub in business, they proclaim. Down with the rural version of Soviet planning!

In Kettlewell that seems a very metropolitan argument. And Kate Barker is so far, so very far, away …