Property and Power in the English Countryside: The case of housing Peter Somerville

Property and Power in the
English Countryside: The case of
Peter Somerville
University of Lincoln
20th April 2012
The rural housing question
• See Satsangi et al (2011) – but what is the question? And is it
peculiarly English (or British)?
• The persistence of class inequality based on property ownership:
– a comparatively affluent, immigrant, ex-urban middle class and the
remnants of the former agricultural population tied to the locality by their
(low paid) employment, by old age and by lack of resources to
undertake a move. The former group lives in the countryside mostly by
choice (and this includes the majority of farmers and landowners) and
has the resources to overcome the problems of distance and access to
essential services. The latter group, by contrast, has become
increasingly trapped by lack of access to alternative employment,
housing and the full range of amenities which the remainder of the
population takes for granted.
• (Newby, 1980: 273-4)
• More than 30 years on, this is much the same, except that most of
the former agricultural population has died or moved away, and
have been replaced by so-called ‘counter-urbanisers’
Historical background
• Resilience of the ‘Anglo’ landed gentry up
to early 20th century
• Agglomeration and corporatisation in
Britain, but expropriation in Eire
• ‘Closed parishes’ and ‘open parishes’
(Spencer, 1997) – the dual countryside
• The freezing of this rural duality under the
Town and Country Planning Act 1947 –
non-growth areas and key settlements
Post-war changes
• Intensified exploitation of (‘productive’)
land, with loss of employment and
biodiversity (in the non-growth areas)
• Expansion of key settlements, e.g. New
Towns, market towns
• Extensive gentrification of rural areas
outside of key settlements
A continuing rural social divide
• The ‘old’ and the ‘new’ gentry, an alliance
of ‘productivist’ and ‘post-productivist’
interests – a single dominant class, based
on exclusivity of landownership?
• An increasing spatial separation of this
class from the rest of society
• The exclusivity of both sets of landowner
interests (broadly, those of agri-business
and of consumers of the rural idyll) is
largely reinforced by planning law and
development control
Revanchism revisited
• See Smith (1996) on urban gentrification
• Does rural gentrification represent an attempt to
eliminate the poor from the countryside?
• Gallent & Robinson (2011) – people move away
from rural areas mainly to seek employment, not
for housing reasons
• BUT it is the gentry who have been responsible
for the annihilation of jobs in the countryside,
aided and abetted by local planning authorities
(which they often control, anyway – so-called
Sustainability – the final refuge
of the scoundrel?
• Non-growth policies are increasingly
justified on the grounds that new housing
in small villages is not (economically and
socially) sustainable
• The result is increasing car use, which is
of course not environmentally sustainable
• In the long term, such restrictions are not
socially sustainable either – the villages
will ossify and die
Rural homelessness
• Officially, homelessness is lower in rural
• However, this is because many people in
the countryside who are homeless or at
high risk of becoming homeless move to
urban areas – further evidence of
Rural housing policy
• Basically, it’s about ‘protecting’ the
countryside, through restrictions on nonagricultural development, to make it safe
for producer-driven agriculture and
consumer-driven gentrification
• Since at least the 1970s, the contribution
of government to the provision of new
affordable housing in villages and hamlets
has been negligible (and possibly even
negative, if account is taken of the effects
of the Right to Buy)
Future prospects for rural housing
– a look on the bright side
• Community-led planning – a light at the
end of the tunnel? (e.g. Dawlish)
• Counter-urbanisation of employment –
stopping the rot
• Taking sustainability seriously – in both
production and consumption
• But government must look more seriously
at the issue of rural landownership – e.g.
the debacle over the proposed
privatisation of the Forestry Commission