FOLLOWING the Government's announcement last month of plans to 'safeguard' affordable rural homes for future generations of first-time buyers, housing association Accent Nene has already started work to deliver and safeguard affordable homes in Huntingdonshire. The new arrangements mean that, instead of the homes simply becoming part of the market housing stock, their 'affordable' status is preserved for the benefit of future first-time buyers in rural settlements. Gill Anderton, sustainability and project manager at Accent Nene, explained how it overcomes some of the development challenges. "Finding suitable development sites is a challenge in itself. It's not just about finding a spare bit of land and building houses on it. It's about identifying a real need for housing and then finding a way of meeting that need. Local authorities conduct their own housing needs surveys, but these are not always up to date. "It is vital that we work with the most accurate information possible so, where a recent survey isn't available, we commission one. The surveys tell us if there is a housing need and, if so, what sort of housing is needed - be it family homes or one or two bed flats - and how the local population views it." Part of the problem in villages is that it is almost impossible to build affordable housing within the village boundaries because, if there is a plot of land available, the price would reflect the location, making it too expensive to build affordable housing on it. A lot of Accent Nene's developments are built on 'exception sites', so called because they are an exception to the usual planning rules. Planning permission on exception sites is usually granted only for affordable housing, which must always remain affordable. Exception sites come with a much lower price tag because developer would not get planning permission to build market-value houses on them. Accent Nene builds a mixture of rented and shared ownership properties on exception sites, with the understanding that the properties can never be sold outright on the open market, ensuring they remain affordable for future residents. Accent Nene looks for exception sites that blend into the existing village, such as a farmer's field adjacent to existing housing, a spokesman said. Yet exception sites have their own unique challenges. Ms Anderton explained: "Unlike plots developed within the village boundary, parish support is required to obtain planning permission for exception sites. We work closely with the parish councils, local communities and village residents. We demonstrate the need for housing, explain where and what we propose building and we take their comments on board to ensure that everyone is happy with what we are planning before it even goes to the planning committee. "By working closely with local residents, demonstrating that there is a real need for affordable housing in their village and by giving them the opportunity to influence the design of the new houses, we stand a good chance of getting their full support, which is vital with rural developments." Accent Nene finds that it can take anywhere from 18 months to four years to get a site off the ground. And, once the homes are built it is important that they are allocated to local people. Pauline Gardner, regional housing manager at Accent Nene, explained: "It is vital that we house the right people in the right places. We help people living in rural communities to access quality, affordable housing by linking into the lettings schemes of the local area. "If residents are having problems paying their rent, our income management team visits them at home and helps them get the advice they need. We are currently working on a financial inclusion strategy to help deliver financial advice and guidance and increase the number of people with access to basic financial services such as bank accounts, affordable credit, debt advice and home contents insurance." Accent Nene's most recent rural schemes include 10 homes (a mix of rent and shared ownership) in Buckden and two flats in Hilton. Gill Anderton concluded: "Often people who grew up in villages and want to move out of the family home cannot afford to buy their first house in the same village and so they move out to nearby towns. People who work in villages often cannot afford to pay the high prices to live in that village. "By building affordable housing in rural areas Accent Nene is able to welcome people back to the villages they grew up in and is helping to restore village life. It won't happen overnight, but as long as the commitment is there, it will happen.