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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.