If you live in a town or city, the phrase ‘new build’ probably conjures up one of two images in your mind. For city dwellers, it’s an apartment block, either converted from an office building or built on a former brownfield site. For those in towns, it’s usually the ubiquitous Barratt Homes estate – a maze of cul de sacs built on the edge of town. 

However, while the majority of new-build developments remain in urban areas, there is a new trend towards the countryside emerging. So, what does this mean? 

Greenfield Instead of Brownfield? 

Short of some unforeseen disaster that empties our cities (hello, Coronavirus), there will always be more new homes being built in urban areas than in the countryside. Nevertheless, research from Warwick Estates reveals several rural settings with a high percentage of new builds for sale. 

For example, in sleepy Bishop’s Waltham, nestled in the borders of the South Downs, 25% of all properties for sale are new builds. And similar figures apply to Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales (22% of the market) Ripon, North Yorkshire (18%), and Wallingford, Oxfordshire (17%).

Although none of the places listed is rural in the purest sense (they’re not tiny hamlets), all of them are small market towns surrounded by some of the best countryside the UK has to offer. 

So what’s happening? Why are local authorities and developers suddenly building homes where traditionally there have been few? Is it a question of space? COVID-19? Or something else altogether? 

Is the Shift Down to COVID-19? 

As we’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the pandemic and the accompanying switch to remote working for many urbanites have whetted appetites for rural property. According to Rightmove, 2020 saw a 78% yearly increase in enquiries about rural or suburban property from people in the UK’s ten largest cities. And there was a 126% increase in interest in village locations. 

So it’s hard to dispute that COVID-19 has had some effect on the desirability of living in the countryside. However, it’s important to note that many of the new builds currently on the market were built (or at least planned) long before we’d ever heard the phrase ‘novel Coronavirus’.

In short, we can expect to see new build developments popping up in rural areas for years to come due to increased demand, but the trend predates the pandemic.

Is it a question of space? 

Some experts have put the surge in rural development down to a simple question of space. To take London as an example, there’s increasing resistance to building more houses on the city’s green belt. This leaves brownfield and former commercial sites as the only real alternative.

It should be noted that there is plenty of room to build on these sites. The Countryside Charity for London estimates there is enough ‘shovel-ready’ brownfield land within the city to build 280,000 new homes. 

However, many of these homes are likely to be high-density housing such as apartment buildings. And, for anyone starting a family an apartment in busy Zone 2 is always likely to be less enticing than a rural starter home with a garden. 

Plus, it’s worth pointing out that these brownfield sites are often in areas with very high real estate values. So not only do developers have to grapple with falling demand from prospective buyers, but they also face competition from commercial projects. 

This means at least some development has to happen elsewhere. 

Or just government policy? 

It’s partly this calculation that has led to some pretty strident government policy on rural constructions. According to an analysis of current planning policy, nearly 400,000 new homes will be built on greenfield sites in the south over the next five years. 

To break this down, that would mean an extra 11,000 homes in uber-rural Cornwall and 10,000 in parts of the home counties such as Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The UK has long had a shortage of rural housing, exacerbated by rising prices. And current government policy is an (admittedly timid) attempt to fix that. 

What does the future hold? 

So to come back to our original question, is the future of the UK housing market rural?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, demand for rural property isn’t going anywhere. COVID-19 has made many of us reassess what we want from a home and provided remote working continues this isn’t likely to change. This, coupled with government policy, should see new build developments continue to pop up in the countryside.

On the other, cities, despite their expense and pollution, are still desirable places to live. What’s more, there are plenty of people for whom London, Manchester or Birmingham are (and always will be) home. So it’s important not to overstate the importance of rising interest in rural homes. 

What’s more likely is a slightly more even distribution of where new builds are built. And would that be such a bad thing?