England’s wealthiest landowners are being called upon to help combat the national housing crisis by releasing land for affordable homes.
The owners of 5,000 of the country’s largest rural estates hold the key to creating employment, economic growth and housing in areas of the country that are experiencing population decline, according to a recommendation from The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), which is lobbying the Government to create more schemes to encourage building on unused land.
There is currently a 76pc shortfall in rural housing, which is forcing people to move out of country towns, and is driving up house prices to unaffordable levels.
The call came as new figures showed that UK house prices grew at their fastest pace in eight months this December, and amid warnings that a shortfall of new homes could push the growth in prices higher.
Prices rose by an average of 0.8pc this month, data compiled by Nationwide found, an acceleration from the 0.1pc growth seen in November.
According to Sir Peter Erskine, who has built 22 affordable homes on his family’s Cambo estate in the East of Fife, Scotland, “the big estates are the solution to the depopulation of rural communities”.
Snowdrops at Cambo Estate, Fife Photo: Alamy
The area near his estate, not far from St Andrews, has lost a grocery shop and a post office in recent years, with a school under threat from a lack of pupils.
“I care about the health of the community and, whether people like it or not, we [the landowners] are major stakeholders,” he said. “We can have an effect.”
The Cambo estate employs 150 staff during peak season, but Sir Peter warned that without affordable housing, the “gentle decline” of the area could not be stopped.
“Small amounts of affordable housing can make a huge difference to the viability of rural communities,” said Rics’ head of policy, Jeremy Blackburn, adding that building just 10 units in each of the 1,600 small and market towns in rural areas of England would solve the rural housing crisis.
“This is less about central Government providing landowners with fiscal incentives, although that would be helpful,” he said.
“It is about encouraging local authorities to work together with landed estates to build homes, putting in place ‘rural exception sites’ [a designation that means the new homes have to remain affordable] for both young people and older people, especially tenanted farmers with nowhere to go when they retire.”
Countryside communities are shrinking as families are forced to move away because of soaring sky prices Photo: Bloomberg
Sir Peter, the sixth baronet of Cambo, said that the Christmas special of hit TV show Downton Abbey helped to show that country estates were once “social and economic hubs” in rural areas.
“They were once where almost all the training happened and their importance was valued,” he said.
He claimed that many landowners across England are willing to take advantage of opportunities to effect positive social change but had been held back by high taxes and “hostile” attitudes.
“Over the years we have dealt with an increasingly hostile political atmosphere and we are only just emerging from a brutal and punitive tax system,” he said.
“When I inherited from my father [in 2008] we were paying 98p in the pound in tax. It is only now that we can start looking out from under our stones.
“We are now in an era where people will once again appreciate the value of these estates and what they can do for the community.”