Simon Jenkins — himself a second home owner — is tackling the difficult problem of second home ownership, which is as high as 70% in some parts of the country.
Edward Hudson founded rural life in 1897 it was to celebrate the “search for beauty” that was the ideal of the city dweller in rural England. This will open up new horizons for citizens who travel in their new cars. A lucky few may even be tempted to go further, to find a second home in the lap of nature, the legendary “place in the countryside”.
Today this place is getting sour. Before the recent pandemic, it was estimated that half a million families had a second home somewhere in Britain. This may be as low as 2% of the housing stock, but in coastal and mountain scenic areas it has increased, often to over 70%. Housing prices are inflated and communities are destroyed. The streets are empty most of the year. Protests are heard from Cornwall to north Wales, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire coast.
Hostility became political. Cornwall prepared to double the council tax on second homes and others followed suit. The Welsh government is now allowing councils to levy a triple surcharge on such houses, which could result in the best residences costing £18,000 a year. St Ives requires all new homes to be for permanent residents. South Hams requires titles to be registered as “primary residences” in perpetuity.
Everyone says the same thing: Stay away.
Traditional resorts have long capitalized on their appeal to outsiders. Scarborough, Blackpool and Torquay are accustomed to seasonal migration and empty properties for much of the year. This is the price they pay for their core business, tourism. Much of the current hostility comes from small towns and villages that have suffered from the decline of fishing and agriculture and are facing desertion as their youth leave to work in the cities. An LSE study of St Ives may conclude that the new restrictions “hit tourism and construction” but do not benefit local residents. But hostility remains strong.
Longtime rural communities are known to be tight-knit and do not tolerate outsiders. From France Manon de Sources to Suffolk Akenfield, they instinctively resist intrusion. But what was gradual turned into a stream. Working from home, “holiday” and Brexit hurdles for second homes in France have led to a shift in how wealthier people spend their money. They feel it is unfair to be denied a getaway after a busy week in the city, just as it is unfair to the locals when they are denied the market price for their property. This may reduce the availability of housing for long-term rentals, but it happens everywhere. Beautiful villages become like very expensive parts of cities.
Where the debate becomes more heated is over the impact newcomers have on community cohesion. There seems to be a fundamental difference here. Terraces of boarding houses, vacation homes, and Airbnbs cater to tourists, anonymous visitors, and visitors who have no other than commercial contact with the locals. Non-essential residents, on the other hand, may develop a strong local commitment to their alternative residence. They chose to invest in a particular location, either through family ties or because they had vacationed there in the past. They often remain in retirement or become “first hosts” and the city becomes their second home.
“Those who spend money and time not disappearing abroad but celebrating the glory of rural Britain should not be driven back to the cities. They should be welcomed as allies in a common cause.
A local friend who has a second home once told me, “I prefer to have neighbors who value life here, rather than my kids who are so desperate to leave.” Sophomores bring new money and sometimes new businesses to parts of the country that might otherwise be in decline.
They deal with local issues and contribute to local affairs. One of these was academic writer John Maddox, who ran as a “second house” candidate for his Brecon local council and even won election. In parts of the continent, such as Portugal and Sicily, second homes are subsidized by the state to rebuild property in deserted and isolated areas.
I’m sure there is a compromise. The second houses are not going anywhere. But at least their owners can do something to recognize what their presence – and frequent absence – is doing to an established community.
One solution could be a voluntary charter of second homes drawn up by the councils and offered to all new arrivals.
They promise to always use local stores and local services.
They should try to keep their property occupied as much as possible, if not by themselves, then by family, friends and other people.
They will respect local traditions and support local clubs and charities.
They will understand that these communities are made up of people, not just beautiful buildings and beautiful views.
In 2000, “the countryside” ranked alongside royalty and Shakespeare in millennium polls for the “most valued traits” of British people. The recent planning reforms discussed and adopted have put the rural landscape at serious risk of degradation. Random policy deviations in agriculture, nature conservation, renewable energy and rural housing are a growing concern. The campaign for the beauty of the countryside is even dismissed by the townsfolk as a prerogative of the anti-growth of the nimbi.
Second hosts are often at the forefront of this campaign. People who dedicate their money and leisure not to disappearing abroad but to celebrating the glory of rural Britain should not be herded back into the cities. They should be welcomed as allies in a common cause. The countryside needs new blood as much as the old to fight for Hudson’s great cause.