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Buying a second home in the country is what many city folk dream of. But Exmoor national park believes it is bad for rural economies - and wants to stop it. Michael White considers a modern moral dilemma Michael White, Guardian Unlimited, Thursday September 6 2001 I spent my childhood summer holidays at our home near the sea in Cornwall. But I spent my winters there, too, as that's where we come from. It rains even more in the winter. Alas, the last time I inspected our old home next to Duporth wood at Porthpean outside St Austell, I thought I detected the distinctly unused air of a second home, used in the summer months only. Lovely for the purpose - but at what cost, and to whom? It raises an interesting question. Are the state or local authorities justified in interventions designed to curb - or prevent - the growing demand for second homes ? Should they stop big city types throwing their financial weight around in Scotland, the Lake District, Wales and the West - though any village within a two-hour reach of London is as vulnerable as Kuwait was to Saddam. More to the Guardian point, even if Tony Blair's fear of offending high earners inhibits government action (not that an end to the 50% council tax rebate - say £350 a year - would upset many bankers), should the progressive, property-owning classes hold back? Can lefties, in all conscience, own second homes? Should Michael Meacher sell up? And should John Mortimer give his place back to the Tuscans? Even in the distinctly unprosperous 50s, this was a problem in the prettier towns and villages of Cornwall: Fowey and Polperro, St Just in Roseland and the Helford estuary, our beloved St Ives, and lots of hotspots along the north Cornish coast such as ever smart Rock. Pre-Rick Stein, Padstow was a bit of a dump when I lived nearby in (now thriving) Wadebridge. I can boast that I knew the place before it had cobbles. Nowadays you can probably buy polenta and ciabatta as well as chips and white bread in Padstow's flowerfestooned streets. It's progress of a sort, and the town looks much better for it. But if I know Padstonians (ditto St Ivesians, Fowey folk and the rest) there will also be undercurrents of resentment against the "grockles" and "emmets" (patois for ants) who swarm into the county every summer with their cheque books and their funny Islington or Didsbury ways - especially against those whose purchasing power buys homes that might otherwise still belong to locals. So my sympathy yesterday was with the Exmoor national park authority when it announced that it intends to impose planning permission requirements on would-be second home purchases in the park - and to refuse it in communities where second homes already number more than 10% of the housing stock.
In some parts of Exmoor, apparently, the figure is already 40%. And the mismatch of supply and demand is likely to get worse unless the coming slowdown takes the wheels off the London/south-east boom economy. Typical wages in Lorna Doone country are 76% of the national average - £8,000 to £15,000 - but average house prices are £187,603, a 30% increase in just three years. It is not just second homes, of course. Rural villages also suffer an influx of wannabe rustics in search of somewhere safe and healthy to raise their families. Daddy commutes into town while the people who work in the village, but can no longer afford to live there, countercommute - from council estates in the same town. Retirees in search of rural peace also push up prices. What with oldsters and weekenders, some picturesque villages in Sussex and Suffolk, Wiltshire and Dorset often feel like Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village, which was, come to think of it, exercised by the same problem in the 1770s. Michael Heseltine's council house sales policy in the early 80s added to the problem. I once watched him playing amateur estate agent on some lovely council estates in his Henley constituency - homes that looked like Nye Bevan's tribute to William Morris. Hezza assured me that locals wouldn't lose out. But they have. As in gentrified areas of London and other big cities, where councils and housing associations have prevented the total Chelsification of once-decaying Georgian terraces by market forces, it is all about balance. Let market forces rip, and you often destroy the very qualities you came in search of - village schools and pubs, for instance. Hence Exmoor's decision and Labour's half-hearted threats to rig the market a bit against the polenta-wielding hordes and their Volvo boots full of chardonnay. Some of their money is needed, though. It helps to keep the shop going (though rarely the school) and may even provide some jobs and rescue houses - especially large ones - that might otherwise fall down. In St Ives, where Virginia Woolf spent her childhood holidays looking out across the bay at Godrevy Lighthouse from daddy's second home (there's a car park in the garden now), and artists have been lowering the tone for a century, the new Tate gallery, still a divisive topic, has helped lengthen the season and increase takings. Which points to the growing need for more diverse forms of tourism - probably upmarket tourism (Cornwall's brilliant Eden Project, for example) - in regions whose old industries (farming and tin mining) have faded. But too much second homing does more harm than good. So where does that leave Meacher, Mortimer and, indeed, the other 250,000 Britons with a second home in Britain or - almost as many - across the Channel ? It all depends on how many people like them live within hailing distance - and how warmly or frostily they are greeted in the saloon bar of the Pilchard and Pesto. Let me make an unabashed admission. Several years ago my wife and her best girlfriend clubbed together to buy a house in south west France, north of Toulouse, but well south of the British colonies on the Dordogne. It is not something I would do in Cornwall where we rent at Easter. But, so far, we have not encountered any trouble of the anti-grockle variety - yet. The fundamental difference between Gascony and the Penwith peninsula is one of supply and demand.
The French only abandoned agriculture as a major employeer after the second world war, and the homes people left behind when they went to the cities did not have time to fall down before the second homers from Germany, Holland, Belgium and Britain - the cold north started arriving. So all the villages I know there still have empty properties waiting to be snapped up. Some belong to city families reluctant to abandon the old homestead, others are too large or inconvenient. Land is cheap and many locals prefer to build from scratch with all mod cons. Yet the rumbles have begun even in the vastness of La France profonde: too many foreigners with their foreign ways, pushing up prices and demanding that people speak to them in English (the Germans are still reluctant to press a point in old Resistance country). The locals know the outsiders contribute to their prosperity, but still resent them, and the delicate balance is threatened. We do not go to Tuscany any more so I do not know if Signor Mortimer is much loved in his neighbourhood or hanged in effigy the moment he heads for home. But Peter Mayle is an awful warning of what can happen when the foreigners push their luck. Always be polite, talk quietly and fit into local ways. And, if you must write books about your little corner of Umbria or even south Dorset, do not make folk out to be quaint. They may turn up one night and string you up. Thomas Hardy, himself a local boy, never made that mistake.
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