Second homes can be a bane and a blessing for UK cities. We need the right balance | Simon Jenkins
Ohitby has had enough. Just like Mevagissey and St Ives. Just like Brighton. The same goes for the Lake District, the Cotswolds and half of Britain’s beauties. No more second circuit. Lockdowns, staycations and ‘working from home’ have seen an influx of new arrivals, driving up local property prices by 20% over the past two years. Brighton voted this week to prohibit new construction to non-primary residents, as are St Ives and Whitby. Others seem sure to follow. Where will this lead?
Second homes are not a national problem. Just before confinement 3% of UK households had one, and of those just over half – 500,000 – were in the UK. But the last two years have seen city dwellers taking revenge on the hills and the seaside. They have flocked to Cornwall, North West Wales, the Lake District and Argyll. The Cotswolds, from Chipping Norton to Stow-on-the-Wold, became the English Long Island. In the Chapel Stile of Cumbria, 85% of the houses are holiday rentals or second homes. In Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire, only 30% is occupied by full-time residents. Cornwall now has 20 times more properties available on Airbnb than it has for long-term rental.
I admit to being part of this problem. Since childhood I have lived part of the year in a Welsh valley, where my parents are buried and where I feel a sense of ‘home’ quite different from my feeling for London. I am particularly aware of the dismay felt for a long time by the small community, of which 80% of the houses are now unoccupied out of season. The place is unreal: silent streets, closed shops and empty cafes. The school has been closed for a long time, as have the doctor’s office, the bank and the police station. Everywhere there are vacation rentals and second homes. As builders and decorators explode, stores become unviable, and stuffing is eliminated from local institutions.
Considerable efforts are now being made everywhere to combat the scourge of second homes. Six years ago St Ives voted four to one to ban new buildings other than to local buyers, although it was unclear whether this might prevent them from being sold later. A pre-lockdown LSE survey found developers in the town were simply avoiding new build in favor of conversions, or building homes in other towns. Survey author Christian Hilber concluded that deterring second homes “simply harm the local economythe tourism and construction sectors”, without any noticeable benefit for the inhabitants.
The Government’s new Leveling Bill gives councils the freedom to double council tax on second homes in England as a sort of deterrent, as is already the case in Wales. There is intense hostility towards mainly English newcomers to counties such as Gwynedd, which now charges me £8,768 council tax a year on a modest seaside property, which would be four times the tax on a larger property in West London. It’s a crazy local economy and it just ensures that second homes are only for the very wealthy.
Sedentary communities have always struggled to absorb newcomers. One thing is certain, as Venice and other tourist hotspots have discovered: the urge to travel in search of beauty will grow and grow. The more British planners allow extensive development on the countryside and coastline, the more valuable will be the corners that survive. Vacation rentals, weekend getaways and second homes aren’t going away. They are an army on the march.
The question is how the favored communities can make some kind of peace with the invaders. Residents can hardly be denied the market value of their properties. As values soar, ideas of local affordability collide with arguments about who is “local” and what “social” housing is. No one has the legal “right” for their offspring to live near them as many demand, but planning should at least give them that opportunity. Or will St Ives be open to all, as in the quote, “like the Ritz hotel”?
It is clear that a village or town where the majority of properties are vacant for much of the year will change character with the seasons. Cornwall in the winter is radically different from Cornwall in the summer. Second home colonies are at least preferable to the “ghost towns” now emerging in parts of central London, where the streets and squares of Kensington and Chelsea are closed and dark. They aren’t any sort of “home,” their gated communities keeping nothing but laundromats for foreign billionaires. Nobody seems to care.
The reality is that, by their presence, second residents show affection for the place where they have spent their savings and put down roots. In retirement, these roots often become permanent and carry with them the younger generations. I’m sure the best way to deal with this is not xenophobia, planning bans and criminal taxes.
A better approach would be to draft a voluntary charter offered to anyone listing a second home in a new community. He must agree that the property will be occupied for a given period of time. The owner must commit to frequenting local stores, supporting local activities and helping local charities. In return, the community could actively engage with secondary residents, consulting them on planning, etc.
Britain has many sad and declining places that would give teeth to have the St Ives problem. As things stand, most of the country has avoided the fate of villages in parts of Sicily, Portugal and Sweden, whose fleeing populations have led authorities to plead for new buyers, first , second or third. You could have one in the Sicilian mountains for just €1.
A different and very practical approach to cohesion and local taxation emerged in a village in the French Auvergne which found itself deserted outside of the summer. The mayor has decided to make second circuits his friends. Throughout the season, he apparently hosted barbecues and a band for them every Saturday night in the parking lot, forging a bond of affection between locals and strangers. And every year he pricked foreigners for his “charities”. They happily paid.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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