Monday, 15 August 2011

Cornwall and the blight of second homes

Second homes are a real blight on communities across Cornwall as elsewhere, housing stock lies idle for the vast majority of the year and as a consequence that community dies one empty property at a time. Without full times residents, villages and towns with second homes soon turn into ghost towns, when there is no one there year round to shop in the post office, drink in the pub, and attend the schools and churches/ chapels these facilities soon close. There is need of them, these symbols of the community become redundant and soon too does the community itself and it just becomes an empty cluster of houses, devoid of life and absent in function save for a few weekends a year. This has a wider impact, when the amount of residents becomes fewer and fewer, the need for a bus service lessens and will eventually drop completely effecting nearby communities on the bus route too. In the community itself assets are stripped as they become redundant and save for the odd workman that has to come by once in a while and do some maintenance that village soon becomes economically stagnant, fewer people work there and fewer people have money to spend there.

Obviously the much wider problem is that of artificially inflating house prices, second home buyers increase demand which increases the price. So the fashionable weekend retreats such as Rock, Fowey, Helford, Mousehole start to have higher and higher house prices. As a consequence local people that want to live in these places become less and less able too, combined with the decay brought on by empty non-residential properties, there are less jobs as well. Without being able to earn a living there or afford a house they then move somewhere else. This has been evident in Cornwall through the last decade or so, whereby house prices in inland (less desirable to moneyed urbanites) have started to increase with the demand from people displaced from the 'rural idylls'. In effect the problem like a virus has spread, started in coastal and rural communities now encompassing Cornwall. Take for example my street in Penzance (St James street), small houses (mostly 2 bedroom) built around 1900, no parking, no gardens, hardly prime properties by anyone's standard. According to the website the average sale price on this street in 2000 was £57,000, 2001: £66,161, 2002: £77,322, 2003: £116,500, 2004: £119,400, 2005: £152,475, 2006: £142,750, 2007: £149,250, 2008: £164,000, 2009: £143,916, 2010 £141,600. So to buy my house in 2000 was £57,000 now £141,600 (link to the page), more than double what it was ten years ago, yet wages have not doubled and it is impossible to comprehend these rises without looking at factors such as second homes. Even with the recent recession and fall in employment and stagnation in wages, house prices have not significantly dropped. The demand has increased largely due to second homes, estimates on the number of second homes in Cornwall vary between 6% and 10%, Cornwall Council figures suggest there are 14,000 second homes in Cornwall. Compared to the number of people on housing registers in Cornwall 18,000 we start to uncover why we have such a housing problem in Cornwall.

So what can we do about 2nd homes in Cornwall?

Abolish second home discounts:
Cornish councillors recently unanimously backed a motion to abolish the council tax discount for second homes, currently they pay 90%. Not that long ago it was 50%, based on the idea that the house used less services as vacant, partly true but I am sure nobody would want their house being burgled or burning down and half or 90% of the usual police force or fire brigade turning up. I think the idea is that the council will make more money from these properties and will serve as a deterrent to second home buyers. Although I doubt it will, if you have say between three hundred thousand pounds and 2 million to spend on a house used occasionally, then a couple hundred quid a month would be like a drop of water in the Atlantic.

Stop second home owners pretending to run their houses as a business:
At the end of the last Labour government, they did float the idea of tightening up the rules of what constituted a business and presumably dropped it after middle England read about it. At the moment you can in effect pretend that a 2nd home is a business, taking advantage of various rate relief schemes designed to help bed and breakfasts etc. So you could buy a nice house in Polzeath rent it out once or twice to friends, then purport to be a loss making business and in effect get the taxpayer to subsidise your weekend retreat. I think this should be tightened up upon, I do think it's fair that genuine businesses can claim rate relief if they run at a loss and/ or to encourage them to invest in assets. As with everything tax, a decent accountant can find a workaround, so solving the problem would be difficult and ultimately this is just a nice sideline and wouldn't stop the ultra-rich buying a second home.

Ban new second homes when 5% of that area is already non-residential
This idea comes from Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow in his own words:
We need far-reaching reforms to the planning system and the introduction of controls to reverse both the spread and number of second homes. Planning permission should be needed before homes can be turned into part-time residences, so that councillors have the ability to say no.

Mebyon Kernow believes that if more than 5% of the housing stock in a particular settlement and/or parish are second homes, there should also be an automatic ban on any new ones. And in such areas, properties used as second homes coming onto the market should only be allowed to be sold for use as permanent dwellings.
I think this is a good idea, for too long councils in Cornwall have stood idly by whilst second homes have multiplied in our communities. They need to start representing the people of Cornwall better, there is very little appetite here in Cornwall for second homes, democratically Cornwall Council should reflect this and take action.

Change in attitudes:
Above are listed many reasons why outsiders but holiday homes in Kernow, but the problem is not just of outsiders. Keen for money, many Cornish people have sold their houses in the knowledge that it will go to a second home owner. So too Cornish estate agents are more than willing to encourage 2nd home ownership, what's the point of selling to a local family on minimum wage when  a lot of money can be made from rich up country folk? I do not think either position is socially responsible, I understand the desire for money (I'd own my own house if I was rich) but at what cost is this profiteering to the people of Cornwall?

The reason I was spurned to write this blogpost today was after reading an article in the Independent link here, which really surprised me. I naively though that this left wing paper would champion social responsibility and the plight of the common man. But no true to the form of many champagne socialists they have written a long piece on the virtue of holiday home ownership in Cornwall, the benefits of the 'riveria' retreat and the investment opportunities etc. These are also attitudes that need confronting, it is quite common for lot's of London newspapers to market Cornish homes as if they were stocks and share or permanent hotel rooms with no though to the consequence to the people that actually live here.

Both internally and externally we need to change attitudes to second home ownership, both to bolster support for abolition of the council tax discount and introducing change of use in the planning system. But also to encourage people not to do it, to show outsiders that we have lots of lovely hotels in Cornwall and there are alternatives to buying a large house for occasional use. To convince house sellers that it is better for Cornwall, the Cornish economy and communities to not sell to people who want second homes. To convince estate agents that selling to local who needs a house is better for our economy and as a consequence the property business. I think we could introduce a bold policy decisions to second homes, Cornwall Council could in theory issue compulsory purchase orders for second homes and effectively turf people out. But I do not think this would be a good thing to do, I do not believe that the state should have these sort of powers, so we must concentrate on persuasion.

I am convinced that second homes are definitely a bad thing, I think there are legislative solutions to ease the problems which are already being proposed, but I am not sure this is enough. What we need is a change in attitudes , I am not sure how we can do this? any suggestions leave them below....


  1. Claire Taylor-Shepherd16 August 2011 at 18:42

    Unfortunately it seems to be symptomatic of the trend in social attitudes that has been growing over the last 40 years... that outward displays of wealth (more properties and cars etc than necessary) indicate success and worth as a person. Unless we can shift the perception of 'success' so that personal worth is measured by true friendships, compassion and happiness, people will keep chasing after the material structures that enable them to demonstrate their 'success' to others.
    It was this kind of ostentatious greed and flagrant disregard for communities that led to the burning of holiday homes in Wales during the 80s- it would be a sad thing to see such tactics resorted to again. If this is to be avoided, the feeling of helplessness needs to be addressed- this can only happen if the Cornish people are given more autonomy over what takes place in their community. This is one reason why I believe a Cornish Assembly is vital to the economy and morale of the area.

  2. Thanks for the comment Claire. I can only say I agree with you, second home ownership is part of materialist culture and it is to the detriment of communities here in Cornwall and no doubt around the world. I was reading this article article earlier titled Britain's most selfish people
    pretty much sums it up.

  3. I completely agree with you both on the issue of materialism. People are defined by the stuff they own. Always a likely consequence of the lurch towards rampant consumerism from the 1980s, I suppose, but a tad depressing.

    On the issue of a Cornish Assembly I'm yet to be wholly convinced. Devolution to all the English regions isn't something I'd rule out, though...

  4. Thanks for the comment Alex, I agree and it is depressing.

    As for the assembly I have always supported the idea, but it must be borne in mind that even with devolution in Wales and Scotland they are yet to take a radically different path to England on second homes. So I would argue that an attitude change is needed to convince buyers of second homes, sellers and politicians alike. To reduce demand voluntarily -hopefully- and to strengthen the case for legislating against them to limit them.

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  6. I actually watched a channel 4 programme the other day about a young couple living in a village they had grown up in. They were left a plot of land and they were building a house with money they had saved (which wasn't very much). This opened up my eyes to the escalating house prices in our beloved Cornwall. Although I already knew second homes were a problem, I didn't realise the extent. This opened my eyes to the fact that locals are not only struggling to stay local but having to altogether leave their home villages. This to me is disgusting and actually upsets me too tears. Traditionally villages were a collective of poor people getting by with locals. I'm lucky enough to be living with my partner in his grandmothers cottage left to his mother. If we had wanted to buy in this 'popular' village we would have had to find at least £230,000.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kelly, I don't know whereabouts you are but it's a problem throughout Cornwall. The danger is that no one young will live in these villages and they'll become the preserve of the wealthy and second home owners. I saw in the property pages of the Cornishman a 2 bedroom cottage in Mousehole that was 270 thousand! Completely unaffordable.

    2. I'm from the top of cornwall in the parish of stoke climsland. A prime example is that if we did our cottage up so that it had mod cons (heating) we could look at selling it for 250..My partner and I are fiercely cornish and love the village (He's grandfather was born here) so it will never see an estate agent as long as we both live. My problem is the fact that young couples can't buy the houses in the village that do come up and when we have children they will have no other local children to play with. A 3 bed bungalow was sold for 400. I hope that this political issues is one that stays close to the hearts of cornwalls MPs so that we can see a return to reality!