Levelling-up is very much the phrase of the moment from government and policy makers. The idea that growth and prosperity should be rebalanced from south to north, centre to periphery, the ‘surging ahead’ to the ‘left behind’. 

Whilst the phrase is primarily an economic (and social) growth focused one and relates to a desire to deliver ‘one-nation’ infrastructure and development policies, what parallels are there between rural and planning policy agendas? What can be done to level-up housing and economic growth across urban and rural areas, ensuring that smaller settlements and the countryside are not left behind to become areas of socio-economic decline with closing services and ageing populations?

There is no doubt that things have changed for the better in the last 10 years with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework. A move away from urban centric national policy to a more balanced policy approach has occurred which acknowledges that ‘planning policies should identify opportunities for villages to grow and thrive’ (NPPF Paragraph 78). 

However, local policies and decision making are still catching up in some areas and there is much more that needs to be done to stop rural areas and some settlements, particularly smaller ones, becoming increasingly unsustainable. 

Thankfully, some authorities are leading the way. For example, the recently adopted Suffolk Coastal Local Plan includes an innovative policy (at a districtwide level), which acknowledges that even in the smallest clusters of houses it can be inherently sustainable for some growth, to ensure that these small communities remain strong by attracting younger residents. Its Housing in Clusters in the Countryside policy supports proposals for up to three houses within a cluster of five houses, and slightly more (five houses) in clusters of ten that are well related to a village or town. The policy, which rightly includes environmental checks and balances on site type and development impact, seems eminently sensible. 

As another example of good policy, for a number of years now, Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Council has had an innovative policy that allows non-allocated rural employment exception sites to be delivered on the edge of settlements in the countryside. Almost all councils have policies supporting rural housing exception sites, which, whilst rarely enacted, allow affordable housing on non-allocated edge of village sites, why not the same for employment sites?

These types of well-thought out and innovative policies are arguably far more sustainable that continuing rounds of increasingly radical permitted development rights from government. They offer much hope that growth patterns can be levelled up across urban and rural area, allowing an environmentally and socially appropriate level of development in our rural areas, to ensure that they, and particularly the young and the elderly within rural communities, do not get left behind. 

A more rural-focused approach to the spread of development also chimes with many other social and policy changes of the day.

For example, the government ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2030 will remove the pollution from emissions which has long been used as a sustainability reason to prevent growth in rural areas. There is also an increasing focus on ‘up-stream’ health policy measures and what can be done to prevent direct demands on healthcare ‘downstream’ by tackling the conditions that cause poor health: what could allowing new housing in existing clusters do to enhance community vitality, helping to prevent loneliness along the elderly (and younger) generations and the acknowledged health problems that this can bring?

What of Covid-19, which, despite its many damaging effects, has turbo-charged the shift to working from home and the benefits for rural areas? If maintained this can create a once in a generation opportunity to make rural settlements more sustainable by attracting working age residents. At the same time the pandemic has provided an increasing focus in many people’s minds on the values of communities, local shops and pubs which are so important in rural areas. 

Finally, it’s is not just a case of what can development in rural areas do for society and community. Many rural areas are places where development on smaller sites, which as of 2018 received specific support in national policy, can occur quickly, despite macro-economic circumstances, due to demand. As Rishi Sunak stated in his November statement ‘Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun’ – there is much that an appropriate level of development in rural areas can do to contribute economically to addressing this emergency, whilst delivering clear social benefits. 

Here are Rural Solutions we will continue to look out for and actively promote, levelling-up in favour of rural areas.


by James Ellis, Director – Planning

Originally published in Rural and Urban Planning Magazine