Rural rent prices in the UK are rising four times faster than in cities, intensifying a countryside housing emergency that is hitting young, marginalised and disadvantaged people.
Lettings prices have risen by 8.7 percent in the countryside in the last year, compared to a decline of 2.6 percent in cities, figures analysed by Hamptons estate agency for VICE reveal.
Rent prices have also increased faster in the suburbs than in cities each month since the start of COVID. Rents are being driven up by a lack of housing stock in rural and suburban locations, with fewer homes coming onto the lettings market since the beginning of the pandemic. People working from home who are moving out of cities to seek more space in the countryside are compounding the problem, experts say.
David Fell, a senior analyst for Hamptons, said: “The number of rental homes on the market has been on a downward trajectory right across the country over the last couple of years. But it’s been in rural areas where the decline has been felt most severely. Here, the number of homes available to rent is down 62 percent on two years ago. Much of this drop-off in stock has come since the onset of COVID, and has been driven by tenant migration out of cities by those looking for more space.”
Despite the recent price hikes, country rents remain at about half the level of rents in cities in cash terms. The average rent in the UK is now at a record £1,007, up 5.9 percent on the same time last year, and 9 percent on this time two years ago, according to HomeLet. The data seen by VICE shows the average city rent was £1,859 in June, compared with £958 in rural areas.
Earning potential is generally lower in rural areas, and people being unable to afford a house in the rural area where they work is not new, says Graham Biggs, the chief executive of the Rural Services Network, adding that “the pandemic has worsened that”.
The southwest of England saw the highest annual price rise, with average monthly rents reaching £948 – a 10.5 percent increase on this time last year, and a 12.6 percent increase on pre-COVID levels.
Three years ago, Becca Eggins, 22, moved to Exmoor to start an apprenticeship at the Calvert Trust, an outdoor adventure holiday park for disabled adults and children. She lived onsite initially, with plans to find a place to rent privately, but has been unable to leave because she is priced out of the local rental market. “If I stayed with someone in a flat or shared my room with someone, I might be able to move out, but [living] by myself, I don’t think I could,” she said.
Eggins keeps her eye on the market, though, and recently looked to see what was available to rent. She found nothing, even outside of her budget. “There is nowhere to rent; most houses are holiday homes here,” she said. VICE found one property to rent on Rightmove – a two-bedroom bungalow for £925 a month – within a few miles of the Calvert Trust site. By comparison, there were 42 Airbnb stays.
Nik Harwood, the chief executive at Young Somerset, said the pandemic has “absolutely amplified” the problem, and living in an environment that is “job-rich, but career-poor” is among the factors. “In the southwest particularly, you’ve got hospitality and tourism work. These jobs are seasonal; they’re reasonable to well-paid, but there’s no security,” he said.
Harwood warns that the “astonishing lack” of social housing – coupled with the number of second homes in the southwest – is leading to increased migration of young people away from the rural areas in which they grew up and want to live. “That’s been the dynamic forever and a day, and it’s getting worse,” he said.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, agrees, and fears the situation means some people could be facing disaster. “People are being priced out and pushed out of their local areas because there’s just nowhere they can even afford to rent,” she said. “For some young people, this means being unable to fly the nest and start out on their own. For some families, this means homelessness after their next eviction notice.”
Homelessness in rural areas has more than doubled in the past two years, according to an analysis of government figures from CPRE, the countryside charity, in October of 2020. Some 9,312 households were assessed as being owed homelessness relief by predominantly rural local authorities in 2017/18. A year later, that figure had jumped by 85 percent to 17,212, and in 2019/20 the number had soared to 19,975 households.
Arran MacDonald, 25, lives near Ullapool, a village in the Scottish Highlands. She and her partner wanted to move back to the Highlands to be close to their family after studying at university in Edinburgh and having a daughter in 2019. There was nowhere for them to live in the place they had both grown up.
Lucy Beattie, a local farmer, could see the lack of affordable housing in the village, and worked with the Communities Housing Trust to renovate one of her farm buildings to let out to a family with local ties, who works locally, at an affordable monthly rent. MacDonald, who works as a Gaelic-medium assistant and on archaeology projects at Ullapool Museum, her fisherman partner and their two-year-old daughter now live in that converted sawmill.
“We got very lucky and were accepted for the house,” MacDonald said. “This would have been our only option in returning home, as there are absolutely no houses to rent and no affordable homes for sale.”
Scotland saw the most significant month-on-month rent price rise, with the average price jumping 4.4 percent to £738 a month in June, the HomeLet Rental Index shows. Meanwhile, a Rightmove search showed no properties to rent within 30 miles of Ullapool. The cheapest of the three houses available to buy was inviting offers of more than £375,000.
MacDonald has seen first-hand the impact that the lack of local affordable housing has had on those closest to her. “I have family members and friends who have been homeless, living in caravans, on couches or having no option but to stay with family,” she said.
Anya Martin, the director of PricedOut, a national organisation campaigning for affordable houses, said increases in house prices and rents result from not building enough homes for decades. “You have to address the core structural issues around how we supply housing in this country before we can hope to fix it,” she said. “A lot of the things the government does regarding housing are action in name only; they’re relatively small and don’t address the core problem. Until you do that, we’re going to keep seeing this problem worsening and wasting money. Government can change policy to make housing cheaper. Instead, it keeps it expensive, and then just throws money at it to help people afford the high prices.”
Neate at Shelter said: “Decent homes that people can actually afford to live in are rare across the country, but especially in more rural areas. Successive governments have failed to build the social homes that local communities need. Government plans to ‘level up’ have to include proper investment in social housing, so families in every corner of the country can have a safe place to call home.”
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “We’ve delivered more than 190,000 affordable homes in rural areas in England since 2010 and are investing more than £12 billion in affordable housing over the next five years, with half for affordable and social rent. We are also providing more than £750 million this year alone to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.”