Second homes: they do more damage than you realise

It’s hard to have a healthy community when locals can’t afford to live there anymore.

I like Oxfordshire - I like it very much. Other than my time at University, I’ve never lived anywhere else, but that’s never really bothered me. Despite the constant presence of David Cameron’s oddly soft looking face (he’s my MP you see, and he never pisses off), the Cotswolds are a fairly lovely place to be. The Hazell line that led to my existence has lived in the same chunk of West Oxfordshire for over three hundred years; it may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but I do get to indulge in that mildly pretentious sense of rootedness that seems to be elusive for so many.

Obviously I’m not the only one who appreciates the appeal of thatched cottages and winding country lanes; an increasing number of well-off Londoners have warmed to the idea of a country retreat. Why faff about with renting holiday cottages when you can just buy your own? A lovely slice of pastoral bliss, reserved just for you.

An attractive prospect, I’m sure, but it results in what were once homes becoming vacant buildings. The owners contribute nothing to the local area; they spend a weekend enjoying the scenery before popping back off to London to earn some more money. The villages can often feel dead - it’s hard to have a healthy community when locals can’t afford to live there anymore. It’s becoming increasingly common too. The last census found that 165,000 people own a holiday home, 23,000 in Cornwall alone. Within the area of Richmondshire in North Yorkshire almost one-tenth of all properties were listed as second homes.

I don’t want to appear like a pitchfork-clasping yokel, muttering about outsiders - I’ve no problem with anyone integrating themselves wherever they may please. The source of my irritation is the attitude that Britain’s rural landscapes are just conveniently pretty backdrops to be gazed at admiringly, as if they are pre-prepared theme-parks.

The countryside does not exist to look nice for bankers and PR executives - it’s not a cute recreation of Frodo Baggins’s Shire, waiting patiently to be photographed. The countryside has been, and still is, home for communities with their own way of life. For rural Britain to become an empty vista of holiday homes would be a tragedy, one that would negatively affect us all.

Many of the features which holiday home owners find so endearing and quaint face uncertain futures if there’s nobody there to use them. The strain is already taking its toll. In the past year alone one-third of villages have seen a pub or shop close, and once these services are gone, it’s depressingly difficult to establish them again.

One of my favourite books is Lifting the Latch, the memoirs of Montague Abbott (1902–1989), a carter and shepherd who lived his entire life in the small village of Enstone, the same place that my Granddad was born. The book is written in a way that displays Mont’s old Oxfordshire accent, and paints a vivid picture of life as an agricultural worker experiencing the last days of ‘old England’ – the physical toil, the humbleness of personal aspiration, the closeness of the community.

It was a world where the hardness of everyday life required the constant presence of community, people rarely roamed far from the village, and so the place buzzed with activity. It was a hard life, but it was not without its rewards. In the closing pages of the book Mont reflects:

I’ve scratched old England on the back and her’s given me wealth untold. . . Our Enstone, our Oxfordsheer, this England take a lot of beating. ‘Blessed is the man that stoppeth where he be.

I am incredibly grateful that my world stretches infinitely further than Old Mont’s, but it still feels strange to walk through Enstone and barely see a soul. Surely it’s possible to make the transition into a service economy and still retain the essence of the community that used to thrive there? Many rural communities still do, but Enstone certainly feels like a lesser place than it once was. People seem less inclined to ‘scratch old England on the back’ and more disposed to park their sports car on it instead.

I asked the Campaign to Protect Rural England about the problem of overly concentrated second homes. They told me:

We very much support local authorities using the tools available to them, including the ability to charge up to 100 per cent Council Tax on second homes, to try and achieve the right balance in their areas.

Changes to the tax system would definitely be a positive shift, and there are already signs that the government is listening. It was recently announced that the Government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme would not include second homes, and the Cornish local authorities have voted to scrap a 10 per cent tax break on the council tax second home owners pay. 

Tax law, however, is not the source of the problem - we live in a society where we believe that we are entitled to ‘have it all’. We are taught that if you can afford it, then you possess the right to anything and everything.

A juicy pay packet does not remove one’s responsibility to wider society. The way we live our lives will always affect those around us. So please, assorted rich people, start viewing the countryside as more than just a pretty place to relax – you’re doing more damage than you know.

 

A view down the high street of Burford in the Cotswolds. Photo: Getty
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”