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.