“Stop whining, you ungrateful inbred bastards, it’s our money that keeps you afloat” or some variant of that sentiment is regularly heard by Cornish people and permanent residents of Cornwall. Particularly in the summer. Particularly when we register our frustration at being priced out of communities we grew up in; at pristine green land being built upon, despite the presence of thousands of empty homes; and particularly when we dare to register our opinion that people are not entitled to as many houses as they like, no matter how wealthy they are. The severe levels of poverty experienced in parts of Cornwall are completely overlooked by wealthy holiday home-owners and the government (the two being far from mutually exclusive). It is hidden from view sufficiently that it will not dirty their holiday photos, it will not visibly encroach upon the sandy beaches or the pristine sea. They can pretend that everybody in Cornwall is as thick as portrayed in the TV show Doc Martin while maintaining a wilful ignorance about the devastating effects their Airbnb accommodation or holiday home is wreaking upon the county they proclaim to love.
Cornwall is being exploited. In May 2021, the Guardian reported that there were more than 10,290 Airbnb listings in the county. St Ives alone has 18.5 Airbnb properties per 100 houses – or at least it did in 2020 – that number has probably risen significantly. Meanwhile, Rightmove had only 62 properties available to rent throughout the whole of Cornwall. The rent was no doubt extortionate, as inflated Airbnb and holiday home rentals distort the entire housing market. In 2018 an MP from West Cornwall led a parliamentary debate on a legal loophole that enabled holiday home owners to avoid paying council tax or business rates. At that time a report found that 8,808 houses were registered as businesses, but 6,650 of those didn’t pay any council tax or business rates. It is estimated that this mass evasion of taxes by wealthy people meant that Cornwall missed out on £10 million per year. It was not until March of 2021 that the government decided it might take action to close this loophole. Of course, whether concerted action will actually be taken remains to be seen, particularly as half of the Tory government probably owns a holiday home in Polzeath, St Ives, St Mawes, or Padstow.
It is interesting that people who defend their Airbnb-listed properties and holiday homes do so on the basis that they are helping bring much needed money into Cornwall, whilst simultaneously collectively evading paying £10 million per year in taxes and rates. Granted, as new homes are being built, tradespeople are indeed being employed. But this is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. Driving into Newquay you are confronted with rows of rotten, dilapidated independent hotels that used to be buzzing with activity all summer. Disused hotels scar the landscape across the whole of Cornwall. When these hotels were open, they would have employed hundreds, if not thousands of employees collectively. When houses are homes to people who live in them all year, tradespeople are required for upkeep and renovations. The argument that continuously building new properties on Cornish countryside is necessary for our economy is extractive capitalist nonsense.
Cornwall has the highest rate of long-term vacant premises in Britain. A recent study found that in Cornwall, 12 out of every 1000 buildings have been vacant for 5 – 9 years, while 25.8 out of every thousand buildings have been vacant for ten years or more. Why the hell then, are so many new homes being built? Particularly when they are unaffordable for local people? The simple answer is individual greed. Rich people want a big holiday home in a water-front location in Cornwall, so they buy (or build) one. People with wealth and no morals will buy a house to rent out to tourists, securing five or six times the income they would if they rented to locals, but consequently rendering local people unhoused or precariously housed. Developers are cashing in on the clamour for a home in Cornwall; a clamour that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even some locals have decided to condemn their communities to precariousness by choosing to charge rent for rooms or houses that is completely unaffordable for locals, knowing that tourists will pay it without batting an eyelid. The consequences of such predatory behaviour are dire, and easy for all to see.
In Cornwall, the average house price is currently £329,462 according to Zoopla. The average UK salary is currently £38,600. In Cornwall, by contrast, the average salary is £23,000. Many of us do not stand a chance. Young people and families are increasingly being priced out of their communities, being forced to move away from their friends and support networks, moving from one rental property to another in the hope that their landlord will not join the thousands of others who choose to rent part or whole of the entire house to tourists. A friend who is from London, studying full-time in Falmouth, is currently unable to move out of his current house-share with an extremely aggressive landlord because there is nowhere affordable for him to go. The same too-often applies to men and women trapped in relationships characterised by domestic abuse. James Ward, a local businessman who makes a point of renting homes only to permanent local and vulnerable residents believes that holiday homes in Cornwall “have absolutely fucking wrecked the place”. He adds that “something has to happen for the sake of the next generation.” Over ¾ of neighbourhoods in Cornwall are more deprived than the national average. Between April – September 2020, Trussell Trust foodbanks in Cornwall provided 8,961 emergency food parcels to people. 36% of those recipients were children. The disparity between the rich and the poor in the county is expanding rapidly – Airbnb and holiday homes are a significant factor in this.
In Port Isaac, a fishing village on the North Coast popularised by the TV show Doc Martin and home of the shanty group Fishermen’s Friends, there is a high demand for tourist accommodation throughout the summer. The village is busy during these months – all that money that visitors are so graciously spending there. This year however two factors have combined to reduce the amount of income the village can absorb. Brexit has meant that European seasonal workers are not able to come and work in the pubs and restaurants. Even if they could, they would face the same obstacle as British seasonal staff: they cannot afford to live anywhere near the village, and therefore, quite understandably, do not come at all (public transport in Cornwall is notorious in its absence). A local business owner in Port Isaac describes how “people who used to rent their rooms to seasonal staff are now charging a much higher price knowing that tourists will pay it. Bar staff can’t afford it.” Most pubs, and some of the restaurants in the village are closed two days a week, during this, their busiest time of year. In the winter, the village will be a ghost town, much like Mevagissey, St Agnes, and other, similarly historical fishing villages, that are being strangled by Airbnb properties and other holiday homes. Very few people fancy a trip to Cornwall in the winter. There is no money coming into the economy, the lights are out, the streets are empty. Increasingly, village shops and pubs, starved of income throughout the winter months, are closing down permanently. For those local residents without transport (as well as for the environment), this is a nightmare.
I asked a friend, who is an artist heavily involved in community-oriented projects, whether she could also comment on the phenomenon. This is her reply:
Cornish villages have character and that comes in the tumbled down uneven nature of walls, windows & doors, with wild flowers sprouting in unusual places that have evolved over time. Like a face, the hardship of work and progress over hundreds of years stares back at us through its creases and wrinkles and makes one reflect on the past … I’m saddened to see, what I term a place being slowly botoxed, neatened and smoothed out because it doesn’t look good and isn’t accepted. Gradually the old character is eroded and the paint and decor of the second homes screams out in stark contrast to those around them. Cobbles are covered , walls pointed and painted, historic family names of buildings changed. A tide of Farrow and Ball washes away the past … no character or characters left.
The defence against regulation of home ownership is often something along the lines of: “you can’t blame people for wanting to make money”, or “people have the right to make money”. What gloriously effective neoliberal propaganda this is. Our communities are worth more than any amount of money. Our environment is worth more than any amount of money. While new (un)affordable homes continue to encroach upon wildlife habitats and villages turn into ghost towns every winter I would argue that Yes. Yes, you can blame people for putting profit before people, environment, community resilience and interpersonal networks. No. No, people do not have the right to make money however they see fit. We as humans are not devoid of responsibilities towards each other. As I cling white-knuckled to the distant dream that more people will eventually see an anarchist-tainted light and grasp the concept of really looking after each other and placing people before profit, I can only hope that some sort of effective housing intervention is introduced before it is too late. Houses should be homes, not a profit-driven investment without a financial or moral ceiling.
I recognise that I am likely preaching to the converted here, but I implore readers: please boycott Airbnb and holiday homes. Please stay in hotels, hostels, b&bs, campsites, or purpose-built holiday accommodation on farms and in people’s back gardens. Please refuse to use holiday accommodation that represents a stolen home; a community puzzle-piece discarded for profit. The Tories have already made it clear that they will not charge holiday home owners additional council tax. That really comes as no surprise given their absolute disdain for strong grassroots communities. The Green Party manifesto explicitly supports extra tax on second homes, and more sustainable housing policies which specifically address local needs. Moreover, the Greens support devolution of power away from Westminster. This would be a much-needed step, not only for Cornwall, but other exploited regions too.
Featured image CC BY-SA 2.0 joeflintham
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