Rural Housing Enablers (RHEs) work to secure affordable housing for local people in rural communities. This provides life changing opportunities for local families, and at the same time, helps to sustain rural communities by supporting local services such as schools, shops and pubs. RHEs were ‘invented’ over twenty years ago and have a strong track record of delivering community-led rural affordable housing. Most operate within a specific county but you can find RHEs in many parts of the country. They are most commonly based with the local ACRE Network member but you will also find them employed by Local Authorities and Housing Associations.
RHEs provide independent support and advice to local communities and act as a conduit between the community and other parties such as developers and the Local Authority. Community engagement is a key part of the role, helping the Parish Council and local residents understand the development process and what can and can’t be achieved. Identifying local housing need is usually done though a Housing Needs Survey and the national RHE Network has developed a simple guide to ‘Principles and Guidance doc Producing robust and influential rural housing needs surveys’.
Identifying local housing need is the easy part (especially in the current housing market). The next challenge is to identify a suitable site(s) for a small rural housing development. Again, best practice dictates that the community are kept on board all the way through the process. Many Local Authorities will actively encourage such developments through a ‘rural exceptions site’ policy in their Local Plan. Nevertheless, finding a site that is policy compliant, ameliorates community concerns and has a landowner willing to sell at an ‘affordable’ price can be a daunting task.
The whole process can take several years and the RHE will need to stay engaged throughout the process, leading in parts, facilitating and supporting at other stages. However, perhaps a few years is not so long in the context of a housing scheme which will serve several generations by providing life changing opportunities and sustaining rural communities.
Mark Deas is the Rural Housing Enabler & Neighbourhood Planning Officer, at ACRE Network Member Cambridgeshire ACRE. Mark represents RHEs at the national Rural Housing Network, a forum of organisations, agencies and government departments looking at issues affecting appropriate development in rural areas.