Second homes can be a blight and a blessing on British towns. We need the right balance

Whitby has had enough. So have Mevagissey and St Ives. So has Brighton. So have the Lake District, the Cotswolds and half the beauty spots in Britain. No more second homers. Lockdown, staycations and “work from home” have seen an influx of newcomers, sending local property prices soaring by 20% over the past two years. Brighton this week voted to ban new building for non-primary residents, as have St Ives and Whitby. Others seem certain to follow. Where will this lead?

Second homes are hardly a national issue. Before lockdown just 3% of British households had one, and of those just over half – 500,000 – were in the UK. But the past two years have seen city-dwellers take to the hills and the seaside with a vengeance. They have flocked to Cornwall, north-west Wales, the Lake District and Argyll. The Cotswolds, from Chipping Norton to Stow-on-the-Wold, have become England’s Long Island. In Cumbria’s Chapel Stile, 85% of the homes are holiday lets or second homes. In Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire, only 30% are occupied by full-time residents. Cornwall now has 20 times more properties available on Airbnb than it has for long-term rent.

I confess to being part of this problem. Since childhood I have lived some of the year in a Welsh valley, where my parents are buried and where I feel a sense of “home” quite unlike my feeling for London. I am acutely aware of the dismay long felt by the small community, 80% of whose houses are now unoccupied out of season. The place is unreal: streets silent, shops shut and cafes empty. The school has long closed, as have the doctor’s surgery, the bank and the police station. Everywhere are holiday lets and second homes. While builders and decorators boom, shops become unviable and the stuffing is knocked out of local institutions.

Copious efforts are now being made everywhere to counter second-home blight. Six years ago, St Ives voted four-to-one to ban new building other than for local buyers, though how that could stop them being sold later was unclear. An LSE survey before lockdown found that the town’s developers simply avoided new-builds in favour of conversions, or else built homes in other towns. The survey’s author, Christian Hilber, concluded that deterring second homes “merely hurt the local economy’s tourism and construction sectors”, with no noticeable benefit to locals.

The government’s new levelling up bill offers councils freedom to double council tax on second homes in England as some sort of deterrent, as already applies in Wales. There is intense hostility to mostly English newcomers in 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. This is crazy local economics and merely ensures that second homes are only for the very rich.

Settled communities have always found it hard to absorb newcomers. One thing is for sure, as Venice and other tourism hotspots have found: the craving to travel in search of beauty will rise and rise. The more British planners allow sprawl development over countryside and coastline, the more precious will be the corners that survive. Holiday lets, weekenders and second homers are not going to vanish. They are an army on the march.

The question is how the favoured communities can make a sort of peace with the invaders. Locals can hardly be denied the market value of their properties. As values soar, ideas of local affordability clash with arguments over who is “local” and what is the nature of “social” housing. No one has a legal “right” for their offspring to live near them as many demand, but planning should at least offer them that opportunity. Or will St Ives be open to all, as in the quote, “like the Ritz hotel”?

Clearly a village or town in which the majority of properties are vacant for much of the year will change its character with the passing seasons. Cornwall in winter is dramatically different from Cornwall in summer. Settlements of second homes are at least preferable to the “ghost towns” now emerging in parts of inner London, where streets and squares in Kensington and Chelsea stand shuttered and bleak. They are no sort of “home”, their gated communities guarding nothing but laundromats for foreign billionaires. No one seems to care.

The reality is that by their presence second homers show affection for the place on which they have spent their savings and put down roots. In retirement these roots frequently become permanent and bring younger generations with them. I am sure that the best way to handle this is not with xenophobia, planning bans and penal taxes.

A better approach would be to draw up a voluntary charter offered to anyone registering a second home in a new community. It should commit to the property being occupied for a given amount of time. The owner should pledge to patronise local shops, support local activities and help local charities. In return the community might actively engage with second homers, consulting them on planning and the like.

Britain has many sad and declining places that would give their eye teeth to have St Ives’ problem. As it is, most of the country has avoided the plight of villages in parts of Sicily, Portugal and Sweden, whose fleeing populations have led authorities to plead for new homebuyers, first, second or third. You could have one in the Sicilian mountains for just €1.

A different, very practical approach to cohesion and local taxation emerged in a village in the French Auvergne that found itself deserted other than in summer. The mayor decided to make second homers his friends. Throughout the season, he apparently staged barbecues and a band for them every Saturday night in the car park, forging a bond of affection between locals and outsiders. And each year he stung the outsiders for his “charities”. They happily paid up.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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