Vol. 45 No. 15 · 27 July 2023


Owen Bennett-Jones on disagreements over second homes in Wales

2809 words

In​ 2017 an article in the North Wales edition of the Daily Post headlined ‘How Eviction and the Building of Beaumaris Castle Led to the Creation of Newborough’ claimed that the village came into being ‘after native men and women were kicked out of their homes to make way for one of Edward I’s imposing ring of castles’. It may have happened seven hundred years ago, but it still grates. Today the English come to Wales not with weapons but with bank balances that enable them to buy second homes. And there is still resistance. Between 1979 and the 1990s a group called Meibion Glyndŵr – the ‘sons’ of Owain Glyndŵr, who fought back English armies in the 15th century – participated in a campaign that resulted in the burning down of around two hundred holiday homes. Their actions echoed what happened in Ireland between 1919 and 1923 when English-owned country houses were set alight by republican forces. Welsh nationalists have grievances ranging from chapelgoers complaining about weekenders wielding chainsaws on Sunday mornings to the changing of Welsh house names to ones the English find easier to pronounce. There are countless media stories about villages with a high percentage of second homes becoming ghost towns in the winter months, where key workers are in short supply and schools unsustainable because there are so few resident children.

In the Welsh-speaking and nationalist heartlands of North Wales, even minor planning applications for extra bedrooms can end up as full-page stories in the local press, with neighbours complaining about ‘party houses’ being advertised on Airbnb and attracting unsuitable outsiders. Local politicians are trying to respond to their voters’ concerns, many of which centre on the preservation of the Welsh language. The council in Conwy recently grappled with a request by a Welsh-speaking, Cardiff-based couple who wanted planning permission to build a house in the village of Llangernyw, which the 2011 census reported had a population of 1079, 64 per cent of whom were Welsh speakers. Council officials complained that the new house contravened the Local Development Plan, which states that only affordable housing can be built in the area, but an overwhelming majority of councillors backed the application, arguing it would help conserve the Welsh language. ‘Some people belong to an area as animals do to their habitat on the mountain,’ one councillor said, ‘and this is one of those.’ The sole councillor who opposed granting permission said he didn’t see why rich people from the Welsh capital should have more rights than villagers who have to abide by the plan. ‘It is about power and privilege that … wealthy people who live in Cardiff can come here and do this, and our residents can’t,’ he argued.

The political party that has done most to preserve the Welsh language is Plaid Cymru. Despite having only 13 out of 60 seats in the Welsh Senedd, Plaid controls the agenda of Welsh politics. There is now near unanimity on the need to design employment, investment and other policies in ways that will promote Welsh. The official target is to double the number of people speaking the language every day to one million – nearly a third of the population – by 2050. In 2021, Labour, nervous of a Scottish-style wipe-out, and one short of an overall majority in the Senedd, entered a co-operation agreement with Plaid which involved agreeing to its demand that – in order to preserve the vibrancy of Welsh – the planning, property and taxation systems should all be adjusted to reduce the negative impact of second homes and short-term holiday lets. In some areas this has meant a premium of 300 per cent on the standard council tax rate for second-home owners. But, to the intense irritation of many local residents, an increasing number of second-home owners have circumvented this by registering their houses as holiday let businesses, thus enabling them to pay business rates. And since small businesses in Wales enjoy rate relief, some holiday lets are paying less to the local council than they used to. It’s estimated that the loophole costs the cash-strapped Anglesey County Council £1 million a year.

But Senedd members who speak out on these issues don’t apply the same standards when it comes to themselves. The Plaid spokesman for housing, Mabon ap Gwynfor, has championed the council tax rise, arguing that the ‘displacement of young people from communities because of the second homes proliferation will worsen if the government continues to hesitate and take half-measures.’ The Senedd register of members’ interests reveals that ap Gwynfor himself has a second home – a rental property in Aberystwyth. The register is only of limited help in determining how many other members have second homes: the official guidance on how to fill out the form explains, in an underlined passage, that second homes ‘used for … personal residential purposes’ don’t have to be declared. The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, is another second-home owner, although when challenged in a recent BBC radio interview about the contradiction between bringing in tax rules to discourage holiday homes while having one himself, Drakeford explained that his rural getaway was not a second home because it was a chalet (they are often classed as unsuitable for year-round occupation).

In 2021 the Welsh government published a report called Second Homes: Developing New Policies in Wales, by Simon Brooks of Swansea University’s School of Management. Many of its recommendations on controlling the use of the Welsh housing stock through tax and administrative measures have been turned into legislation. But Brooks’s remark that ‘the “housing crisis” could be solved by building hundreds or perhaps thousands of new houses’ hasn’t been acted on. It’s a point that often gets overlooked in the debate about second homes in the UK as a whole. But new housing developments in Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, run into opposition from a powerful combination of environmentalists who want to protect the landscape and homeowners worried about preserving property values. Brooks raised one objection to increasing the number of houses that was specific to Wales: the risk that they might be bought by people who cause ‘Anglicisation’. He even argued that second homes can be seen as less damaging than homes permanently occupied by non-Welsh speakers because the contact between Welsh and non-Welsh speakers is limited to a few weeks each year. ‘In some communities,’ he wrote, ‘it is not impossible that a substantial reduction in the number of second homes would result in making the area more Anglicised rather than less so.’

Following Brooks’s report, many new administrative measures have been introduced to control the way the housing stock is used. Gwynedd County Council will soon require homeowners to secure planning permission before they can rent out their houses. It is widely assumed that permission will rarely be forthcoming. For the moment the policy has caused surprisingly little controversy. But that may change. When the rule is introduced, there will be a two-tier property market, with the limited number of unrestricted second homes in high demand and the homes of permanent residents dropping in value thanks to the limitation on how they can be used. Council documents anticipate a price drop of 5 per cent – but estate agents worry that in some villages it could be as much as 50 per cent. Welsh house prices are already considerably lower than in many parts of England. Officials are sufficiently nervous of possible legal challenges and compensation claims that they have delayed implementation of the policy for a year. The measure should help first-time homebuyers, who will benefit from the falling prices of houses owned by permanent residents, but it’s unlikely to be welcomed by older homeowners whose savings are tied up in their property. Second-home owners whose houses have no restrictions should benefit.

Other measures to control second homes apply to tightly defined geographic areas. There are some villages where new housing must be ‘local’, meaning that newly built properties can only be bought by people who have lived in the ward or a neighbouring ward for at least five years or who have a long and established connection with the community. When the time comes to sell, these rules will still apply. These restrictions generate politically advantageous slogans – ‘Homes for Local People!’ – and have been widely praised by Welsh nationalists and others. But in fact they are a failure: in some villages no new houses have been built since the measure was introduced because the number of potential buyers is so small it’s simply not worth the risk. In the village in Anglesey where I live the result has been no increase in the supply of homes and even higher prices, a trend that has further disadvantaged low-income locals who can’t afford to buy while benefiting second-home owners whose properties are in short supply and keep rising in value.

Given that housing has been such a sensitive issue in Wales for so long, one might have thought that the advocates of tighter controls would have commissioned research on which to base their policies. In fact, the Welsh government has for the most part limited itself to commissioning reviews of previously published material. It is generally assumed that second homes are the main cause of rising house prices in rural areas and in some places, such as my village, that is definitely the case. But that may be because the village has so many second homes – they account for between 40 and 50 per cent of the total housing stock. However, to the intense frustration of anti-second-home campaigners, the evidence cited by the Welsh government suggests that, generally speaking, it is not second-home owners who force prices up but commuters and retirees. A document produced in March by Gwynedd County Council justifying measures against second-home owners claimed that the relationship between the prevalence of second homes and higher house prices was ‘obvious’, but conceded that ‘there is actually little evidence’ that second homes are the main cause of higher prices. It depends on the area. In a resort like the village of Abersoch, where around half of the houses are holiday homes, prices have unquestionably been driven up by second-home ownership. Officials work on the assumption that the harmful effects to a community kick in if more than 15 per cent of houses in an area are not permanently occupied.

Wales​ is a world leader in terms of the strength of feeling against second homes, which makes it surprising that it has fewer of them than many other European countries. A ‘league table’ of second-home ownership based on data collated by the EU in the late 1990s puts Sweden and Finland at the top (around 20 per cent of houses are second homes), followed by Spain (16 per cent), Italy and Greece (each on 14 per cent). The figure for the UK and Ireland was just 5 per cent, though many of those second homes are concentrated in areas such as Wales, the West Coast of Scotland, Cornwall and the Cotswolds. The number of second-home owners in the UK has increased significantly since then. The English Housing Survey found that in 2018-19 there were 772,000 households with second homes. The concentration of wealth at the top of society has led to an increase in second-home ownership in most developed economies, including China, and while it’s hard to get reliable figures for international comparisons over time, it’s likely that the UK still has less second-home ownership than many other countries.

There is little resentment about second homes in Sweden, where recent research found that permanent residents in the west of the country see high-spending incomers as an exploitable source of revenue. One Swedish grocery store owner who stocks new items demanded by the incomers told researchers that ‘the second-home owners are from the cities; they’re more enlightened.’ It’s a remark you’re unlikely to hear in Gwynedd. The attitude in Sweden may partly be explained by the steps taken by regional authorities to encourage contact between second-home owners and the local community through websites, newsletters and public events. In Finland there are even proposals to enable second-home owners to appoint representatives to participate in local planning decisions.

In Dorset, a recent survey by Purbeck District Council found that many business owners described second-home owners as a net economic benefit. Some complained that they didn’t shop locally and that local staff found property prices too high, but most said such disadvantages were outweighed by visitors using their spending power to support local restaurants, bars and cafés – facilities which are then available for local people to use all year round. Official figures in Gwynedd show that in 2019 18,244 local jobs – 30 per cent of total employment in the area – were supported by tourism. But the council doesn’t seem to have considered that some of these jobs will be lost if second-home ownership is reduced in the interests of preserving the Welsh language. Despite many nationalists being pro-European, there are parallels with Brexit voters downplaying the negative economic impacts of leaving the EU in favour of achieving greater sovereignty. Yet it seems clear that any further damage done to the already far from flourishing local economy will mean that some of the young people everyone wants to encourage to stay in rural Wales will have to leave.

For all that, Welsh concerns about outsiders buying property is not unique. Foreigners account for nearly 40 per cent of house purchases in Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, which now have among the highest property prices in Spain, leading local officials to discuss a ban on foreigners buying holiday homes on these islands. In Canada a 20 per cent rise in house prices in 2021 led to a two-year ban on foreign investors buying homes, though Justin Trudeau exempted immigrants. He said he was targeting wealthy corporations that were using Canadian property to speculate. ‘Homes are for people, not investors,’ he said. A referendum on banning the construction of new second homes in Switzerland was very narrowly passed, with the support of 50.6 per cent of voters nationwide. But voters in tourist areas were heavily against the proposals, suggesting they were worried about the economic costs of restricting tourism.

Labour’s endorsement and implementation of Plaid’s housing policies isn’t solely born of political pragmatism. It is also informed by concerns about inequality and class. You don’t have to be a nationalist to feel angry about the disparities in wealth laid bare by second homes. There is a proposal in the chronically economically depressed town of Holyhead to build flats on the edge of the Victorian harbour. The developers say it would create hundreds of jobs – which seems undeniable. But local opponents insist that these jobs wouldn’t materialise and they would be forced to put up with the ‘gin and tonic brigade’ getting the best views. One councillor complained that locals would be forced to look at the incomers’ washing hung out to dry at the back of their flats. Similar factors are at play in parts of England. In 2016, 83 per cent of voters in St Ives agreed in a referendum that it should be a requirement for new homes to be occupied as the owner’s main residence. After the rule survived a legal challenge in the high court, other villages in Cornwall introduced similar restrictions. Hostility to second homes is even reaching the Conservative Party: Michael Gove has launched a consultation on whether English homeowners in tourist hotspots should, like those in Gwynedd, have to secure planning permission before using properties for short-term holiday lets.

Sweden’s more tolerant attitude towards second homes can partly be explained by its greater levels of equality, with many more people having access to second homes. The UK has the seventh highest level of income inequality in the OECD. And it’s getting worse. According to the ONS, in 2022 the incomes of the poorest 14 million in the UK fell by 3.8 per cent, while the incomes of the richest fifth of the population saw a 1.6 per cent increase. Wales has the second lowest level of disposable income of UK regions, and relative poverty hasn’t changed at all over the last twenty years. There are only nine thousand people in Wales who pay the highest rate of income tax, imposed on people earning more than £150,000. But in small village and coastal resorts in Wales and Cornwall, for a few weeks each summer and increasingly at weekends throughout the year, the richest and the poorest end up in close proximity. The disparities become glaring and the demands for change louder. Second homes are a daily reminder of the wealth gap. It’s one thing to live in an area with a relatively low standard of living. It’s another to have that fact thrust in your face by privately educated drunk teenagers gallivanting through the long summer nights on your normally tranquil local beach.

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Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

Owen Bennett-Jones writes about second homes in Wales (LRB, 27 July). I moved from Yorkshire to work in North Wales twenty years ago and was met with almost universal friendliness. Two anecdotes, however, might illustrate the antipathy that the Welsh in general feel towards their neighbours to the east. I once listened to a debate on the bilingual ‘Croeso – Welcome’ road signs in which a speaker argued that since ‘Croeso’ was widely understood by English visitors (and indeed, appears in some English dictionaries), the English word could be omitted from the sign. Linguistic purity would be maintained, with the added bonus of conveying exactly what sort of welcome was being extended. The bilingual signs remained. A sign of a different sort can still be made out, although the paint is fading, on the sea wall above the beach near where I live. WALES IS A LOVELY PLACE FOR A HOLIDAY, the graffiti reads, in letters a foot high. NOW GO HOME.

Mike Watkinson
Morfa Nefyn, Gwynedd

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