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A second home in the country is a moral

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 flower-
festooned 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, counter-
commute - 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
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

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