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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit