Housing. It’s in crisis across the UK but nowhere is that crisis more acute than in the south-west, battered by the perfect storm of beauty, inequality and wealth.
It’s not as if we don’t know what damage second, holiday and empty homes do to a community. There’s enough research out there, let alone the daily evidence those of us who live down here can see with our own eyes. Coastal towns and villages eerily empty in the winter months, having heaved with bodies and cars throughout the summer; retail geared to the tourist; poorly paid seasonal work; soaring house-prices and stout resistance from absent owners to any developments – especially developments which include affordable housing; local tenants evicted or priced out of the market to make room for more lucrative holiday lets.
Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, kindly gave us this interview to explain his mission to tackle the crisis head on.
“I’m frustrated” says Pollard, and he sounds it. “We just do not punch our weight down here. We don’t tell our good stories and we don’t explain our problems. We accept a hollowing-out of our communities by second homes without a fight. No other region would put up with this and the whole of the south-west is affected.
‘’It’s high time we stopped just letting it happen and, instead, presented what we want the solutions to be. We have to come together and say enough is enough.
“There has been an explosion in second homes, exacerbated by the pandemic, yes, and the inability to holiday abroad, but if the covid effect on working from home becomes an established trend, then it will only get more difficult for local people. They will be priced out by those moving from the more affluent south-east and our poorer areas will be cleared out and turned into ‘Airbnbs’. In Plymouth for example, the areas round the Hoe and the Barbican have been emptied of locals, ‘gentrified’ and turned into holiday lets or second homes.
“Look, I am all for working from home. It’s greener, for a start. And, yes, we want visitors and we want people to be able to move here, but it cannot be at the expense of local people who need housing as much as they need jobs. The whole infrastructure relies on local providers of goods and services, but those cannot be delivered if local people have nowhere to live.
“Communities need a shop, a garage, teachers, doctors, carers. But a community cannot sustain those essentials if it’s dead for a third of the year or if there is no housing that’s available or affordable.
“We can’t go on with the idea that the market will supply the solution. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Some areas have over 80 per cent of their housing stock as second homes! It’s unsustainable and it’s time to draw a line in the sand.
32 of our region’s 34 MPs are Conservatives; Labour have Luke Pollard in Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and Ben Bradshaw in Exeter.
“This is not necessarily a partisan thing. We need all our region’s MPs to become actively engaged in advocacy for the south-west. Our funding is below the national average and the deviation between housing costs and wages is getting ever more extreme. Councils have been starved of money and have no more to give.
“So I am saying, let’s pull together and do something. Let’s build a campaign to increase awareness of the issue. That’s why I have launched my ‘First Homes not Second Homes’ manifesto, which I developed with Councillor Jayne Kirkham [leader of the Labour Group on Cornwall Council] and Cllr Tudor Evans [leader of the opposition on Plymouth City Council].”
The manifesto has five clear, simple asks:
- new powers from government for councils to progressively raise taxes on holiday lets and unused second homes, up to a quadrupling of council tax where homes are left empty for much of the year;
- a licensing regime for second homes, Airbnbs and holiday lets – with a minimum of 51 per cent of homes in any community being for local people. Councils should have the powers to raise this level to reflect local circumstances;
- a ‘Last Shop in the Village Fund’ – powers for local councils to introduce a Community Infrastructure Levy on holiday lets and Airbnbs, administered by local authorities, to support local shops, pharmacies, post offices, and pubs;
- commitment to build affordable homes and social housing across the south-west, with a priority for local people; and
- lock in the discount of new homes for future renters and buyers, to ensure affordable homes are not lost after the first family moves on.
“We accept that there will always be some second homes, but we must have a strategy that means local people are not driven out of their communities in order to get a job or a house they can afford.”
That this manifesto already has cross-party support is heartening. The housing crisis needs those in power to set aside their party loyalties and focus on an issue which, if left unresolved, will continue to cause stress, resentment and misery, and will lead, ultimately, to hollowed-out ghost towns and villages with little or nothing to offer the tourist but a glimpse of the past.
You can watch Luke Pollard’s speech in Westminster to launch his manifesto here.