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Rural areas: Overview

More on this topic

View the Topic Paper on Rural Areas for in-depth focus about this topic, and the evidence which informs our policy. Visit our library of Local Plan Options supporting documents to learn more. 

8.1    Home to over 37,000 residents, rural B&NES is a diverse group of towns, villages, and hamlets with distinct characteristics and landscapes which accounts for over 90% of the district’s land area. Each settlement has their own strengths and challenges. Traditionally the rural economy has been based on farming, self-employment and small businesses, which without the right support limits growth potential. Poor public transport and digital connectivity also act as barriers to business and home working, contributing to social isolation and unequal access to essential goods and services. 78% of rural residents commute to work by car, and alongside high transport emissions, highlights the need for more local employment and sustainable travel options for our rural communities.

8.2    In 2022, house prices in B&NES were more than 10 times annual median average earnings, creating challenges across the district. The lack of affordable housing in our rural communities threatens the vitality of local businesses and the social sustainability of our towns and villages.

Place profile

8.3    Set amongst high quality natural environments, the villages and hamlets of the rural areas of the district provide an attractive and often peaceful environment in which to live and work. The economy of the rural areas is grounded in agriculture, which now works alongside other small rural businesses. The high-quality landscape, of varying characters, contributes to the quality of life of the district’s residents, as well as attracting visitors and as a place for leisure and relaxation.

8.4    Large parts of the rural areas are designated as Green Belt, and much are within the Cotswolds or Mendip Hills National Landscapes. The rural areas complement the more urban parts of the district, and many rural residents look to these urban areas for a wider range of facilities and employment.

8.5    The current approach to rural development, as delineated in the Placemaking Plan and Core Strategy, categorises our villages as follows:

  • RA1 Villages: Non-Green Belt villages boasting primary schools and, crucially, at least two of the following essential amenities within the village - a post office, community meeting space, and convenience store. Furthermore, they benefit from at least a daily Monday-Saturday public transport service to major centres. Policy RA1 required allocation of sites to deliver around 50 dwellings in each village.
  • RA2 Villages: Non-Green Belt villages that fall outside the RA1 scope, characterised by site allocations to deliver around 10-15 dwellings in each village.
  • GB2 Villages: Villages washed over by the Green Belt, where development is restricted to infill only.

Key issues

8.6    It is becoming increasingly evident that the current strategy is leading to the relative dispersal of development across a wide range of settlements. This is an unintended consequence of the approach outlined above and has led to a number of issues this Local Plan needs to address.

8.7    Many of these issues have been picked up from feedback received to the Launch Consultation and Phase 1 Workshops:

  • Lack of affordable housing to meet local needs that may impact on the social sustainability of the rural areas and exacerbate difficulties for an ageing population.
  • For much of the rural area poor access to public transport affects the functionality of the rural economy and leads to isolation for those without access to private transport.
  • Access to community and social facilities, services and shops.
  • Importance of maintaining and enhancing the character and local identity of our rural areas and communities.
  • Reliance of the rural economy based on farming, the self-employed and small businesses that require support to flourish.
  • Potential opportunities to diversify the rural economy e.g. centred around local food production, sustainable rural and eco-tourism, renewable energy, or the natural resources sector.

Priorities, objectives and approach

8.8    Some of these issues can be addressed through development, either Local Plan-led, or by communities, through Neighbourhood Plans. However, there are some priorities that won’t be addressed through new development but will be addressed through other policies in the Local Plan or initiatives undertaken by the Council or by other stakeholders.

8.9    The Government has also announced its commitment to Unleashing rural opportunity. This policy includes ways in which the planning system can enable the rural economy to grow. Through this, the Government has consulted on possible changes to permitted development rights which support agricultural development and rural diversification. This will look at changes to the current rules to make agricultural development more flexible for farmers so they can improve their existing agricultural buildings to make them more productive. The paper also outlines the ways in which the Government is seeking to support the building of more homes for local people to buy where local communities want them. 

8.10    Our Economic Strategy is also seeking to support the diversification of the rural economy and realising opportunities to facilitate moves towards a greener economy, including growth in environmental services and natural resources sectors, as well as sustainable rural and eco-tourism. Improvements in digital infrastructure and changing work practices also creates opportunities to diversify and enhance the rural economy. A stronger rural economy, providing opportunities for local residents to access good jobs, is a vital component of more sustainable rural communities, alongside efforts to retain and improve local services and facilities.

Proportionate Growth

8.11    Central to these issues is the need for proportionality to growth, ensuring that development aligns with the unique characteristics and needs of individual communities. Without a deliberate focus on proportionality, development can risk overburdening smaller villages, or inadequately serving larger ones.

8.12    These challenges underline the necessity for a more adaptable and nuanced approach to rural development, which not only empowers local communities but also ensures that development is commensurate with the distinct needs and characteristics of our rural villages and settlements. It is with these considerations in mind that the Rural Strategy introduces the two complementary pathways to address these issues, while fostering sustainable growth and development.

Pathway 1: Community-Led Growth

8.13    Under this pathway, local communities take the lead in shaping and advancing their growth initiatives. Emphasising community involvement, this approach offers a flexible framework, enabling residents to propose growth projects that align with their local aspirations. Using a range of tools, including rural exception schemes, community land trusts, and Neighbourhood Planning, empowering communities to initiate growth projects. 

Pathway 2: Local Plan-Led Growth 

8.14    As communities contemplate the pursuit of their growth proposals, it is essential to maintain efforts in preparing the new Local Plan to ensure the certainty of delivering new developments, especially housing and employment opportunities. 

8.15    Taking these steps is vital to achieving the following aims:

  • Positively planning and reducing the possibility of speculative developments
  • Facilitating the development of new affordable, market, and specialised housing to meet the needs of rural communities
  • Supporting existing services and facilities.

8.16    In opting for a Local Plan-led/site allocation approach to rural growth and development, there are several inherent benefits that prioritise the holistic well-being of our villages. Unlike speculative large site development, which can introduce unforeseen challenges for essential functions like schools, transport, and community facilities, a Local Plan provides a structured and comprehensive framework.

8.17    Pathway 2 focuses on a Local Plan-led approach that provides a clear direction for growth and change, adhering to NPPF Section 2: Principles of sustainable development. This approach is essential in helping to meet our overall housing, job, and infrastructure requirements and provides certainty for both communities and developers. The principle of "proportionality" is central to this approach, ensuring that growth aligns with the unique needs and character of each community.

8.18    Pathway 2 focuses on guiding new development in rural areas by identifying relatively sustainable villages. Instead of adhering to the rigid distinctions of RA1 and RA2 villages, a more flexible and proportionate approach will be taken.

8.19    The strategy for rural growth is based on an assessment of a village's sustainability, considering factors such as connectivity through sustainable modes of transportation (public transport, walking, cycling and wheeling) and the availability of essential services and facilities.

8.20    In conjunction with this approach, place profiles have been prepared for our villages and parishes. These profiles incorporate an analysis of past growth since the start of the Core Strategy plan period, demographics, connectivity, facilities audit, and other key issues. The outputs of this work are outlined in a Topic Paper (published alongside the Options document) and the associated identification of relatively sustainable villages for consideration are set out in the Options document. Visit our library of Local Plan Options supporting documents to learn more.

Discussion questions

Question 1: Priorities for rural growth

Do you think the priorities for managing rural growth (that it should be proportionate, community-led and Plan-led) are sound and effective? Are there any other factors we should consider? Please give reasons for your answer. 

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The Local Plan Options Consultation has closed