The motivations behind this week’s referendum on second homes in the North Yorkshire town of Whitby were summed up by a resident who has lived there since childhood. “It’s not that we’re against tourism; We’re not,” Sandra Turner told reporters. “But we don’t want to leave our city either.”
Despite the low turnout, the vote gave a 93% majority for a ban on future sales of new homes to non-locals. The vote conducted by community activists may or may not be noted by the city council. But a message has been sent, and the referendum may have struck a chord in many other scenic locations. Whitby, where home prices have risen 17% over the past year, isn’t the only one feeling a bit stretched. In rural villages and picture-postcard towns, there is a feeling that local people are depreciating and that social cohesion has been eroded by a rising tide of external investment.
Restrictions on international travel during the pandemic have caused house prices to skyrocket in places like vacation rentals. But the trend before Covid. Between 2015 and 2021, there was an estimated 1,000% short-term increase nationally, with most rural vacation hotspots increasing. Meanwhile, long-term rental opportunities are disappearing and affordable housing is extremely scarce. Along the Whitby coast in Robin Hood’s Bay there is an estimated 70:30 split between cottage owners and villagers. Westmoreland and Lonsdale Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has said the housing crisis in rural Britain is going from “crisis to disaster”.
What is the plan? The money that temporary residents spend – building and maintaining the places they live in – is a major pillar of the local economy. Many second home owners form deep bonds with places that become part of their lives. But a city is not a business created to serve the needs of visitors and provide rich returns for real estate investors. It is a place with a history and an identity that will be permanently inhabited by succeeding generations.
This sense of community is weakened when locals are forced to move elsewhere because they cannot afford to live and when rural schools are half-complete due to a lack of young families. With the social housing waiting list growing along with the number of homeless people, it is unacceptable that such a high proportion of properties – many bought purely for investment purposes – should sit vacant for most of the year.
A realignment is overdue to help communities shape their own destiny and meet local needs. There are signs that someone is walking partially. A premium of a whopping 300% of council tax on second homes will be granted in Wales from 2023. The Government’s Leveling Act provides for double council tax on second homes in England. But homes rented out as vacation rentals can avoid council tax and go at business rates.
A more fundamental paradigm shift may be needed. Mr Faron has called for councils to be given new powers to control and limit the number of second homes and public holidays in their area. It seems like a reasonable approach. Local people and their representatives should be given the necessary political benefits to protect the integrity and fabric of the places where they live.