Tackling the Taboos

“There are those who say the system is broke. It’s not. That’s how it was built. It is there to make rich people richer.”  Bilbo Goransson

In parts of Wessex, second homes are an epidemic. In the coastal communities of south Devon, including towns such as Salcombe, second homes and holiday lets now account for over 50% of the housing stock. For those who don’t live in south Devon – and it could equally be parts of Somerset or Dorset – try imagining the scene. Every other home, empty all winter. The locals? Who?

South Hams District Council has done what it can. It has recognised the harm to communities that results when family members are ripped from their roots by lack of affordable housing. Schools, shops and facilities suffer.

Before 2000, the council’s priority was to protect the environment. Since 2000, it has been to get affordable housing built. Not a popular policy with everyone. Council officials have faced death threats. Folk feel that their environment is under attack, as well they might.

The sad fact is that conflict is an inevitable consequence of the law as it stands. Because the Londoners won’t forgo their cosy cottages, local authorities face an unpalatable dilemma. Build – and destroy farmland, landscape, tranquillity, road safety and the rest to accommodate ever greater numbers, eroding the very attributes of rural living that attracted the newcomers in the first place. Or don’t build – and see the community die. A not-so-holy alliance between planning departments (seeking fees) and building firms (seeking profits) means that bricks-and-mortar is the stock answer to any social problem, always preferred to truly constructive thinking.

There is another way. The way that keeps the housing stock stable but gives priority to locals when vacancies arise. It works well in the Channel Islands. It would work well in Wessex, were it allowed to. Empty and second homes could be taxed out of existence. Change of use to a second home could require planning permission. If all else fails, the public sector could step in and buy those homes whenever they come on to the market and rent them to local homeless folk. You remember. Council housing? The very opposite of current policy, where Right to Buy discounts are to be increased, allowing more and more tenants to effectively steal public assets, and where ‘affordable rents’ are now to be redefined as 80% of market rent, regardless of whether local incomes are anywhere near that figure. The Wessex Clearances are underway then. As Robin Stanes put it in his history of Devon, “If it has lost much of its native idiom and rural style and if the Devonshire dialect is now seldom heard – and mocked when it is – that probably does not bother the new Devonians, the incomers who probably now make up the majority.”

When Labour ruled the roost, it labelled second homes a localised problem requiring localised solutions, but always denied us the powers and resources to do anything but moan. Solutions do exist but to reach them will mean putting people and place above property and privilege. Lack of money is the worst possible excuse for not doing something. Money is infinite, just an accounting convention, a symbol for the finite real resources that society either squanders or puts to good use. It is society’s job, through its democratic institutions, to allocate and re-allocate resources, through defining and re-defining the scope of the property rights it will recognise, to achieve just outcomes. It’s time it got on with it. Until then, we shall continue to ask the question: can we, environmentally and socially, continue to afford a part-time populace? Or must the price of their fun in the sun be a lifetime of squalor for the ordinary folk of Wessex?

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

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