Ghost Towns

We need stiff sanctions against second home ownership

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 18th July 1998.

A few miles from where my grandmother was born is a village where time stands still. In the middle of the week you can walk down the high street and hear nothing but the wind in the trees and the moorhens by the river. There are no cars, no lawnmowers, not even the sound of a telephone. It is, at first glance, the very image of rural tranquillity, an idyll we thought we’d lost decades ago.

Come back to the village on a Friday evening, and you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in the same place. You certainly couldn’t walk down the high street, for it’s jammed with a cavalcade of the smartest cars you’d ever have the misfortune to be hit by. Volvos, Jaguars, Bentleys, even the odd Ferrari glide to a halt beside remote-controlled garage doors or simply pull up on the pavement. All over the village, lights come on, kettles start to whistle, televisions drone and mobile phones are screamed at. On Saturday morning, strimmers, radios and model aeroplanes join the orchestra. At the flick of a thousand switches, rural idyll turns to suburban nightmare.

The weekday peace, in other words, is not the peace of a world at one with itself, the bucolic concord celebrated by everyone from Laurie Lee to John Major, but the silence of the ghost town. There is no human sound because no human being lives there. The whole village, bar a handful of homes, has been bought up by weekenders and holiday makers.

Second homes have become the bane of the countryside. Anywhere remotely picturesque is being overrun by city slickers in retreat from the hell they’ve helped to create. As the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, the ownership of holiday homes is becoming one of the major causes of deprivation in rural areas all over Britain.

Last year the number of second home owners making exclusive use of their property leapt from 185,000 to 203,000 in England alone. When holiday homes rented to other people are included, the figure rises to half a million. A second home, it seems, is, like the 4×4 and the ski tan, an indispensable accessory. Even the leaders of the Countryside Alliance, who organised the rally protesting, among other things, against extra home ownership, nearly all have second homes.

Britain’s housing crisis is nowhere more acute than in some of the most attractive villages in the country, where the greedy and disconsolate, at peace in neither the city nor the countryside, have edged out the people in most urgent need. There are cottages in the Lake District, for example, on sale for half a million pounds, while the young people who would once have taken them are living miles away in filthy bed and breakfasts at their local authority’s expense.

As the young are driven out, rural communities shrivel up and die. Weekenders tend not to use local shops and services; holiday makers appear for just a few weeks every year. The elderly can only watch the world seeping away from them.

It is, of course, not only the British countryside upon which the property vampires prey. Sitting in the hospitality suite of a television studio recently, I heard two of the contributers talking about their holidays. They were delighted to discover that both possessed a second home in the same village in Brittany. They congratulated each other on their good taste, then began deploring the surliness of the locals. It’s hardly surprising that some French villagers have warned that if any more sad bastards turn up to re-enact A Year in Provence, they’ll have them lynched.

Open the property pages of any national newspaper, and you’ll be bombarded with offers of cheap homes abroad. Recently the Evening Standard ran a double page feature ominously entitled “Cracking Open Rioja”. “It is the perfect place to buy a peaceful holiday home,” the paper told us “and has all the right ingredients to become the next Tuscany”. The only problem, estate agents warned, is that “you are dealing with locals living in the past.”

It’s a kind of madness, this, a sickness of the spirit, whose sufferers can see nothing beautiful without wishing to possess it. It’s a sickness that requires strong medicine.

The government has proposed that the anomaly which ensures that second home owners need pay only half as much council tax as residents should be removed. Sensible as it is, this will do little to dampen the spirits of the playful rich. In Holland you require planning permission to convert a residence into a second home; there is no reason on earth why the same thing can’t be done here. The alternative is infinitely worse: to sit and watch while the countryside becomes the playground of the rich and the enemy of the poor.