A Devon estate dating back to 1299 has devoted a corner of its land to new affordable housing in a move that surveyors say could become a model for the aristocracy helping to solve the housing crisis.
Clinton Devon Estates, headed by the 22nd Baron Clinton, worked with a housing association to build 19 homes in the seaside village of Budleigh Salterton on part of the estate’s 25,000 acres of land in southern England.
More “modern day Lord Downtons” from among the landed gentry should follow suit, building for local residents as their predecessors constructed workers’ cottages, said the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a professional body.
In the popular TV period drama Downton Abbey, set in the early 20th century, some of the worker characters live in cottages surrounding the patriarch’s manor.
“We are calling for large country estate owners to look back to the past and adopt a more paternalistic approach to their local communities,” RICS said.
More than a third of the UK’s land is still owned by aristocrats and the landed gentry, according to a 2010 survey for Country Life magazine.
Leigh Rix, head of property and land at Clinton Devon Estates, said the homes completed this year — made up of affordable rented, social rented and shared-ownership houses built with Cornerstone, a housing association — form part of a 48-home development on estate land. The rest will be sold commercially, enabling the project to be cost-effective.
We are calling for large country estate owners to look back to the past and adopt a more paternalistic approach to their local communities
– Royal Institution of Chartered Sureyors
The affordable homes were a response to local housing need but were not a planning obligation, he said.
“We rely on local people to work on our farms, on the tenanted farms and on our heathlands,” said Mr Rix. “We need local people, as local people need housing.”
Of the estate’s 50 staff, at least 20 are housed in its buildings, which range from centuries-old thatched cottages to the newly built homes whose designs have been given ancestral Clinton family names such as Trefusis and Rolle.
England’s new housing shortfall has been estimated at more than 300,000 homes a year, with factors from planning hurdles to escalating construction costs contributing to the shortage.
Average house prices amount to more than 11 times annual wages in some parts of the countryside, RICS said.
“We would like to see local authorities work sympathetically with estate owners to encourage the release of land for eight or more affordable houses, based on long leaseholds, which would allow estates to retain long-term interests,” said Jeremy Blackburn, head of policy at RICS.
He said that estate owners at the start of the 20th century took a “more patriarchal approach” to providing affordable housing, partly for “philanthropic” reasons but partly to ensure a settled workforce.
RICS is calling for measures to encourage landowners to release plots of land, such as partial inheritance tax exemptions that would allow heirs to avoid paying taxes on affordable properties on their estates.
Mr Rix said Clinton Devon Estates hopes to build another 10 affordable homes on a separate site.
“It’s a very small amount of farmland that we lose in comparison with the number of people that we’re helping. There’s always an opportunity cost, but we want to build sustainable communities,” he said.
Sir Peter Erskine, a Scottish baronet, built 10 homes for affordable rent as part of a 22-home development — complete with village green — on his Cambo estate in north-east Fife.
The project was backed by £677,000 in grants from the Scottish government’s now-defunct Rural Homes for Rent scheme, set up in 2008 as a pilot project aimed at large landowners. It built some 53 homes and will be replaced from next year with a broader Rural Housing Fund.
Sir Peter said his 800-year-old estate wanted to help foster a young population of local families and prevent communities from being taken over by retirement and holiday homes.
“In this part of the world, so many of the houses get sold as second homes, and you end up with all chiefs and no Indians,” he said.
The estate also owns 26 cottages, some of whose inhabitants work for its businesses, which include a hotel, golf course and distillery.
Even with government support, it took six years to complete the new project in the face of hurdles including the financial crisis and well-organised local opposition to new development.
The government assistance was crucial, said Sir Peter. “Without that, the numbers just don’t stack up.”
The Scottish government is introducing land reforms that could provide for forced sales of some land to local communities, bringing the broader role of estates into the spotlight.
Sir Peter said new housing was “essential” and landed estates should play their part.
“You can see from Downton Abbey how these estates were economic, social, cultural and training hubs in the local community,” he said.