The Blight of Second Homes

Jake and Helen Elster Jones with their daughter Minna outside their home in Llandudoch with a sign that reads 'second homes kill communities'.
Property unoccupied, or rented short-term leaves gaps in community cohesion. (Photo: Phil Rees)

If readers substitute Scotland for Wales in the article below the same problem of empty properties here as in Wales is evident. Back in the late Seventies, Welsh radicals took to burning selected empty holiday cottages that were killing village communities, houses unused most of the year. To muddy the waters, it was generally accepted that British security services were involved to discredit the Welsh independence movement, which they did to a great degree, although the independence question has been rekindled since.

Plaid Cymru was vociferous in condemnation of fire bombing, but considered MI5’s antics were involved. Meibion Glyndwr – which means “sons of Glyndwr” – began burning property in December 1979 in protest at homes in rural Wales being sold to absent people from England. The group was allegedly ‘linked’ to most of the 220 or so fire-bombing incidents stretching from the Llyn Peninsula to Pembrokeshire. The campaign continued until the early 1990s. (The counter-intuitive action of burning much needed housing was not acknowledged for over 20 years.)

Plaid Cymru’s public image was tarnished but some in the political party believed that the security services had learned a lot from what was happening with the IRA and animal rights activists. Police were accused in some quarters of targeting anyone who was a nationalist. Although one man, Sion Aubrey Roberts, was convicted in 1993 of sending letter bombs in the post, the arson cases remain unsolved leading to speculation that the British state was definitely involved. But the problem of second home ownership has not gone away, and nor has Welsh nationalism. Higher taxes on second-home purchases are not solving the problem, which is forcing young people to move away whether they like it or not.

The issue now is second-homes removes critical houses off the market, and increase their valuation artificially. According to depressing statistics released in the summer, almost half the properties sold in the beautiful northern constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd were probably purchased as second homes. This is driving up house prices unsustainably in one of the poorest areas in Wales, and indeed, in other parts of the UK. (Scotland’s parliament has the powers told deal with the issue in Scotland, but has not so far.) Heartland areas such as Dwyfor Meirionnydd deserve to thrive and prosper, offering hope and opportunity to future generations, and preserving the traditions of the past. Sadly, there is no indication the Tory administration in Westminster or Labour in Wales gives a damn, after all, the right of an Englishman, or any individual, for that matter, to own multi-properties has never been challenged. The English colonial’s view is to argue the ‘land of my fathers’ can be purchased but not by my neighbourf”, although that view has not attacted much sympathy these days. (Words in blue link to additional information.)

CULTURAL GENOCIDE

The Pembrokeshire village of Llandudoch – or St Dogmaels – sits picturesquely on the banks of a gentle bend in the River Teifi and boasts a ruined abbey, cosy pubs, and good fishing spots. But 16-year-old Minna Elster Jones has no time for its postcard looks. “I wish this place wasn’t as pretty as it is, so Instagrammable,” she said. “This is my home and the home of my ancestors. But I feel the place – and our language – is being lost, taken away from us. We’re being exploited.”

Minna is furious that the village’s pleasant aspect means that many of the homes in the village are now boltholes for rich outsiders, holiday homes or Airbnbs. “Unless I win the lottery, I wouldn’t have a chance of buying here. My culture, my ethnicity, my language is at risk.” The delicate subject of second or holiday homes and the impact they have on the Welsh culture and language is high on the political agenda in Wales.

More than 1,000 Welsh-language campaigners protested at the Senedd, the Welsh parliament, in Cardiff at the weekend. A petition arguing that people being priced out of their local communities contravenes Wales’ showpiece Well-being of Future Generations Act has gathered more than 5,000 signatures.

On Wednesday, the Senedd’s housing committee began to take evidence for an inquiry on second homes and the Welsh government is about to announce details of its plans to tackle what it accepts is a “crisis”, including an action plan to counter the impact on the language. Figures published by the Welsh government this week found there had been a 45% increase of second homes in Pembrokeshire since 2017-18. That means places such as Llandudoch are the frontline. Signs are appearing on residents’ gates and fences reading “second homes kill communities”, and membership of the campaign for an independent Wales, YesCymru, is growing.

“You can feel the community changing around you,” said Terwyn Tomos, a retired headteacher of the village school. At the time of the 2001 census half of the villagers spoke Welsh, but by 2011 that had decreased to 44%. Tomos said it would not surprise him if it was 40% or lower now. A cruel irony is that there is a huge interest in learning Welsh but communities where it is most spoken such as Llandudoch are being ripped apart. Tomos bemoans the struggle of culturally important groups such as the Welsh-language drama society that had to move out find an audience. “A lot of people are worried,” he said.

Jared and Michelle Brock, who have a newborn baby, have been served an eviction notice. Their landlord wants to sell their two-bedroom house in Llandudoch for the best part of £250,000 or rent it out as an Airbnb. “There’s no place for us to rent within a 30-minute drive,” said Jared. He pointed out that there are about 4,000 people on the social housing waiting list in Pembrokeshire – almost exactly the same number of second homes. “Something has to be done.”

Ffred Ffransis, a leading member of the pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), said the problem was being turbo-charged by the “flight” from cities caused by Covid, while Brexit was prompting people who might have bought second homes in France or Spain to plump for Wales instead. Ffransis said: “All these trends have wiped out the housing market for local people in many areas and we are witnessing population shifts at a level probably never seen anywhere in peacetime. There is growing evidence that no Welsh-speaking communities will be left within a decade. It is cultural genocide by bank transfer.”

Cymdeithas yr Iaith wants the Welsh government to give local authorities more control over the housing market, such as the power to set tighter planning rules that make it harder for houses and flats to be turned into second homes and the ability to set a cap on the number of them.

Minna’s mother, Helen Elster Jones, said she found it upsetting to walk down the high street and hear much more English than Welsh. “It’s painful. I don’t want to feel angry with new people, I’m not a dragon hogging Wales, but it rankles.”

NOTE: This report was compiled by Stephen Morris for the Guardian.

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7 Responses to The Blight of Second Homes

  1. sexton16 says:

    Blame you local council planning committees and NIMBYS. If houses could be freely built these problems would evaporate.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Why would councils want to lose good land for additional houses, and how does that solve the ones empty a lot of the year?

  3. sexton16 says:

    Because people want them! If there were plenty of houses it wouldn’t matter that some were empty. Do you want a form of apartheid where only those with the correct DNA markers are allowed to own houses in certain areas?

  4. alfbaird says:

    Sexton16
    The welsh people are suffering from the imposition of colonialism, much as they have done since England first enforced its unwelcome laws and culture on Wales. Scotland is in much the same boat. How would you think Danes might feel if half the properties in their towns and villages were to be bought up by Germans? Fortunately for Danes, they and most other independent countries have laws to prevent such an occupation occurring.

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    Sexton16 – whoever you are: Which people want them? Racists like you pretending to be liberal? You would not be welcome.

  6. diabloandco says:

    I seem to remember in far off times a skit from the 70’s ‘ Come home to a living fire – buy a cottage in Wales’ a somewhat radical solution.
    But what seriously blights Wales also seriously blights Scotland and I really have no solution. Those who sell up down south appear to make plenty of dosh which enables them to buy a second home. I wonder what Spain , Portugal , France and the rest do about second home owners or what they intend to do now that the UK has exited the EU. Life could get difficult for the immigrants there – calling them ex pats never rested easy with me..

  7. Jan Cowan says:

    Exactly the same problem in the Highlands. The only answer? Independence for Scotland and a ScotGov which cares enough to protect indigenous people.

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