GROWING up in a rural borough may be a dream for many, but dealing with the realities of trying to stay there when it’s time to fly the family nest can turn in to a nightmare.
Take Ribble Valley for example – East Lancashire’s largest geographical borough covering an area of 583 sq km but with a population of around 58,000 people.
This compares to Blackburn with Darwen which has just over 141,000 people in a 137 sq km area.
The rural heartbeat of East Lancashire, the Ribble Valley is coveted by prospective house buyers who have designs on its market towns such as Clitheroe and Longridge and the myriad villages dotted across the borough.
Good schools and the low crime rate are other major factors that make the area perhaps the most sought-after in East Lancashire.
However, this also means the average house price in the borough in March, according to the Land Registry, was a whopping £265,381, £116,400 more than the Lancashire average.
At the same time, the average house price in Blackburn with Darwen was £110,603 and just £94,608 in Burnley.
For those wanting to get a foot on the housing ladder in rural areas, the challenge is even tougher when you take into account the fact that the average wage in the Ribble Valley for a person in full-time employment is £23,042, according to Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures for mid 2006.
If you bring in inflation and say this figure was nearer £25,000 by July 2008, the fact remains that a prospective buyer would have to be loaned nearly 12 times their annual wage to buy a house.
The average wage in other East Lancashire is between £15,000 and £18,000, meaning the Ribble Valley has become a write-off for most.
It is this earnings-to-house price disparity that Liberal Democrat Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro, picks up on in his Living, Working, Countryside review that was published this week.
In it he warns that high house prices and comparatively low wages are threatening the “future of rural communities” and could make them “exclusive enclaves of the elderly and wealthy.”
In his report, commissioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he said: “The English countryside is a wonderful place to live and work – if you can afford a home, if you can find a reasonably-paid job.”
The report urged planning restrictions on second homes, meaning councils could effectively ensure houses were lived in full-time.
But Countryside Alliance chief executive Simon Hart said: “This is an unsustainable situation, and the answer is to ensure that the countryside, which is one of our greatest national assets, does not become an exclusive enclave, but is developed with inclusive, community-minded values.
“This means being bold – not being terrified of building on green fields, cutting VAT on building work and renovations and, crucially, working with local authorities, farmers and landowners to ensure that all suitable land is considered.”
The worry for the Ribble Valley is that Mr Taylor’s vision of just pensioners and fat cats roaming through quaint villages and country lanes is borne out by statistics from the ONS.
The largest age group in the Ribble Valley is the 45-to-64 age bracket which makes up 28.4 per cent of the entire population.
Across the other East Lancashire boroughs, the 25-to-44 age bracket is the largest. The Ribble Valley also has the largest percentage of people over 65, nearly one fifth.
To combat this, Mr Taylor’s report suggests initiatives such as community-led affordable housing schemes, flexible planning rules to encourage village businesses and new planning policies for market towns to avoid a “doughnutting” effect. This latter point refers to potential ring fencing of towns by bland new build estates.
But Ribble Valley Council housing chiefs said they recognised the threat posed by a lack of affordable housing and were doing all they could to give first-time buyers a chance.
Rachael Stott, Ribble Valley’s housing strategy officer, said: “The key thing is working with housing associations and we support them in their bids for grants and support.
“We forward on to them empty properties in villages and they buy them up and we have the nomination rights for the site.
“It’s about maintaining a balance because if we are not careful we could have an ageing population. We have to make sure we preserve rural life places such as village schools which go along with that.”
She said the council had not granted any planning permission to edge-of-town developments since 2002 and everything since has been along the affordable route.
These have included developments in Sabden, Waddington, 16 two-bedroom apartments at Clyder Park, Clitheroe, offered on a shared ownership basis and 45 affordable homes which are due to be developed at Petre Wood Farm, Whalley Road, Langho.
The Ribble Valley is also leading the way on community land trusts, as mooted in the Taylor Review.
This comes in the form of an initiative by The Brabins Trust, which got provisional planning permission last April to build 11 affordable houses and flats on the site of the old village hall in Chipping. The trust, which was founded in 1683 by wool merchant John Brabin, could be become of the first community land trusts when it finally goes ahead.
Mr Taylor said this type of scheme may be the way forward. He called for strictly-controlled housing in rural areas to create more affordable homes for local workers.
Mr Taylor said: “We are at a crossroads. We can continue to let too many villages become exclusive enclaves of the elderly and wealthy, and market towns be ringed with endless estates or we can create attractive communities in which people want and can afford to live.”
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