Biarritz curbs holiday lets to make way for locals

Local officials this month passed tough new rules to block the development of Airbnb and holiday lets in 24 towns and villages across the region, including in Biarritz. 

With its elegant boutiques and stretches of golden sand, the French resort of Biarritz has long proved a popular holiday destination. Wealthier visitors have flocked to the Hôtel du Palais, while another crowd comes for the surf and heads inland for stunning mountain hikes.

Yet as tourism has boomed, local residents have increasingly struggled to find somewhere to live. The reason, say campaign groups, is holiday homes. The number of holiday lets across the French Basque country has more than doubled to 16,500 between 2016 and 2020. Private rental accommodation is scarce and there is almost a two-year wait for social housing.

Local officials this month passed tough new rules to block the development of Airbnb and holiday lets in 24 towns and villages across the region, including in Biarritz.

From June, landlords who want to let a second home for holiday stays will need to provide an equivalent property to rent for the whole year in the same town or village. As many landlords will struggle to find and fund a third property that matches the requirements, advocates hope the new rules will bring thousands of flats back on to the rental market.

Maider Arosteguy, the mayor of Biarritz, described the current situation as “untenable”. At the vote, she raised the case of a couple going through a separation but forced to remain in the same accommodation despite incidences of domestic violence. She said officials had to “find solutions to enable young people and those on average incomes to stay and live in the Basque country”.

The move may help people such as Charlotte Belot, a 27-year-old environmental campaigner. “When I finished my degree, it was impossible to find somewhere to live,” she said. “So I moved back in with my parents. I later found a shared house where the contract ended each June so the landlord could turn it into a tourist flat for the summer.

“I was lucky enough to be able to go home again, but some of my housemates had to rent Airbnbs for two months at summer prices as they had nowhere else to go. Finding a place here is really hard.”

Edouard Gruson, director of the Maisons du Sud-Ouest property agency, agreed that “something had to be done for long-term lets”, particularly for younger people, and believes the new rules will have an effect. He estimates that for every long-term let the agency advertises, it receives 30 to 40 inquiries. Still, Gruson described the new rules as “too tough”. He understood the desire to target smaller apartments but hoped the rules will be reviewed for bigger houses.

The Pays Basque is not the first region in France to restrict the development of Airbnb and similar platforms. In some larger towns and cities, listings have to be registered with the local authority, while primary residences cannot be let out for more than 120 days per year. Paris and Bordeaux are among those to have implemented tougher restrictions, particularly targeting short-term lets.

The new rules in the Basque country will affect both existing and future lets, as licences need to be renewed every three years. Landlords will not be able to convert ground-floor commercial premises such as beloved local boulangeries into accommodation.

Campaign group Alda described the decision as a “social and ecological victory”, though for it and many others this is still the start of a process. Some see the need for complementary measures on second homes. There are disagreements over whether the measures will harm tourism or improve it by protecting accommodation and the local character

Questions remain too over the prospect of landlords simply removing their holiday lets and putting the properties up for sale. “In that case, they would again be out of reach for those who want to live and work here,” said Belot. “So this new measure is not enough, but it’s a start.”

Our Local News stable changes hands, again!

Thriving local journalism is vital to local democracy, social media is no substitute. – Owl

Local newspaper giant Newsquest seals deal to snap up rival Archant

Henry Saker-Clark 

Newsquest said it has completed the acquisition of Archant Community Media from private investment firm Rcapital.

Local newspaper publisher Newsquest is to expand further after sealing a deal to buy East Anglia-based rival Archant.

The move will solidify Newsquest – which publishes titles including the Northern Echo and Lancashire Telegraph – as one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups.

It confirmed on Friday that it has completed the acquisition of Archant Community Media from Rcapital, a private investment firm which snapped up majority ownership of the publisher in a rescue deal in September 2020.

Archant owns a number of local newspaper brands in East Anglia, including the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News, alongside a portfolio of regional Country Life magazines and employs 760 staff.

Sky News reported last week that the two groups were in talks over a merger deal which would value Archant at between £10 million and £15 million.

Henry Faure Walker, Newsquest chief executive, said: “We’re really looking forward to working with the Archant group who worked so hard to build up the business after it went into administration 18 months ago.

“The Archant strategy focused on building out digital marketing solutions and digital subscriptions is closely aligned with our own and the additional scale that our combination brings will greatly assist Archant’s local news and Life brands in building a stronger future.”

Lorna Willis, Archant chief executive, said: “By bringing the best of Archant and Newsquest together we have the opportunity to lead the way in building an exciting future for regional media, a future that speaks to growth, innovation and sustainability, built on quality local journalism.”

HSBC to close 69 more bank branches as Covid speeds shift online

Sidmouth on the list but you have a Post Office within a mile and a half and plenty of other ATMs (for now)!

Rupert Jones

HSBC is to shut a further 69 branches, on top of the 82 it axed last year, claiming the pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital banking.

It is the latest in a line of banks to announce it is reducing its network in response to changing customer habits. Consumer organisation Which? said the number of closures during the last few years was “alarming” and that millions of people were not yet ready or able to go fully digital.

Early last year HSBC had 593 branches, but the latest round of closures – scheduled to take place between mid-July and early October – will take that down to 441, of which 96 are described as “full service” outlets offering a comprehensive range of services.

The 69 branches that are closing are spread across the UK, from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands to Falmouth in Cornwall.

Those being axed include branches in high-profile London locations such as New Bond Street, Moorgate, Angel Islington and Gloucester Road in South Kensington – areas that are likely to have seen a reduction in footfall during the pandemic, when millions of the capital’s employees turned to working from home.

HSBC said the decision to “reshape” its network was in response to an increasing preference for mobile and online banking.

Fewer than half of its customers now actively use the branch network, with average footfall falling by more than 50% since 2017, said a spokesperson.

The closures mean the average distance a customer will have to travel to a branch to speak to a real person will be four miles.

Jenny Ross, the money editor at Which?, said: “There has been an alarming number of bank branch closures in recent years, and many consumers who rely on banks to access cash for everyday essentials and face-to-face services will be concerned about what these latest closures mean for them.”

A series of branch closures have been announced during the pandemic, with financial institutions insisting customers are spurning traditional counter service in favour of online banking. In November 2021, TSB announced it was closing a further 70 branches. Last October, Lloyds Banking Group said it would be closing a further 48 branches, while in September, Virgin Money announced it was shutting 31 outlets for good.

Ross said Which? urged the government to make good on its promise to bring in legislation to ensure consumers would continue to be able to access cash for as long as it was needed.

HSBC said all of the branches that were closing had a post office within 1.5 miles, and that 90% had 10 or more free-to-use ATMs within one mile. It added that it would be refurbishing branches in important locations, installing new integrated deposit and withdrawal cash machines, holding pop-up events in local libraries and community halls, and providing free tablet devices to some vulnerable customers.

‘We can’t help everyone because it’s too expensive’

Tories facing a cost of living reckoning 

Rishi Sunak says he has already done enough to shield Britain from the looming cost-of-living crisis. Every time the Chancellor is questioned on how he will shield people from soaring energy bills and inflation which far outstrips wage growth, he replies confidently that his £9bn package of grants and loans announced last month will do the job.

Independent experts, Opposition MPs and – crucially – Conservative backbenchers disagree. And on Wednesday, Mr Sunak will face a reckoning as he delivers his Spring Statement in the House of Commons. The Treasury wants this event to be as low-key as possible: rather than a mini Budget, the official view is that these statements should be nothing more than an update on the economy and the public finances.

But will an update cut it? The Bank of England is now forecasting that inflation will peak at 8 per cent this year. Petrol prices have hit their highest level ever, and heating bills will more than double in the autumn if the market price of gas remains at its current rate. One former Treasury minister told i the Chancellor would have no choice but to step in again, even if the intervention is smaller than those unveiled during the pandemic: “He’s going to have to do something, it just can’t be the full Covid.”

The senior Tory added that if Mr Sunak sticks to his guns, the Government will suffer in the eyes of the public just as it was starting to recover from the “Partygate” scandal. “Living costs haven’t really hurt us in the polls too much so far, but that is going to change,” the MP said.

Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer and polling expert, is more optimistic, telling i voters would conclude that any inflation linked to the war in Ukraine would be seen by voters as “part of what we’re paying for a fight for democracy”. He added: “You can say the oil price is high, petrol’s expensive.”

But other parties are rubbing their hands at the prospect of the Chancellor finally losing his shine. In focus groups, voters from across the spectrum have stopped bringing up popular Covid-era initiatives such as furlough when asked for the views of Mr Sunak, according to one person who has been running them for an Opposition party.

Speaking at the Conservative spring conference on Friday, Mr Sunak finally hinted he was willing to go further. He said he had “enormous sympathy for what people are going through at the moment”, adding: “That’s why we will always be there to make a difference if we can.” Over the weekend he is planning a media blitz with TV and newspaper interviews defending his position.

Mr Sunak is said to be “receptive” to approaches from Tory MPs with ideas for how to soften the impact of the crisis. Some argue Mr Sunak’s costly support packages throughout the pandemic have built him up a certain level of credibility and trust with the public – and, arguably, with his colleagues.

This, they suggest, means he can be “honest” with them about what the Government can and cannot afford to do: “He can say we can’t help everyone because it’s too expensive,” one said. “He is a pragmatist.”

For some MPs, the number one demand is delaying the rise in national insurance contributions which takes effect in just a fortnight and adds an additional 1.25 per cent levy to the tax bill of every worker. While both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stuck to their guns, one MP has suggested a way out: “If it’s about pride, they can now say that Ukraine is the reason they need to change course.”

But opinion is split and many backbenchers previously hostile to the policy have come round to it. Multiple MPs told i that raising national insurance was the right thing to do, and they do not see Mr Sunak reneging on this. “It’s cuts, borrowing or taxes,” one said. “I am not pro-increasing taxes but here it’s the best policy.”

That same backbencher added, however, that they would support removing green levies on energy bills to reduce the cost for households. And they would like to see the Government offering more support to big industries, such a steel.

Others have a particular concern for pensioners who are likely to have limited options for increasing their income and face a significant real-terms cut in their pension due to inflation and the suspension of the triple lock.

Duncan Baker, MP for North Norfolk, says living in a rural area like his own constituency can make things even worse for the elderly. “We have a double whammy of people relying on their cars more to get around and being off the gas grid so having to use heating oil,” he said. “Two or three years ago, oil per litre was 30 pence, it’s now £2. It’s unbelievable.”

Backbenchers are not short of ideas for how to help hard-pressed households. Suggestions submitted to Mr Sunak include bringing forward a scheduled increase in universal credit; reducing the tax rate faced by the lowest earners; cutting VAT and green levies on energy bills; slashing fuel duty; increasing the tax relief for people who need to drive as part of their job; cutting the universal credit “taper rate” again; and bringing back the triple lock.

Economist Tom Pope, of the Institute for Government, pointed out that the Spring Statement was originally supposed to be a simple update of the latest forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility – telling i: “In normal times, once a year should be enough for Chancellors to make changes to the tax system.”

But he accepted that this time around, there is a strong case for Mr Sunak to go further. “The Spring Statement is there to make policy changes if the situation has changed since the autumn,” Mr Pope said. “The situation has been so volatile that it is understandable – but there is a danger that you never return to the cycle. This should be a small, select set of changes.”

Both inflation and unexpectedly strong economic growth give the Chancellor cover to U-turn: a stealth tax rise announced in the Budget, which freezes the current payment thresholds for income tax, will raise £12.5bn more than expected because of inflation, while overall Government borrowing in the past year is forecast to come in £20bn lower than originally expected.

Mr Sunak’s two years in office have been dominated by a series of short-term interventions to prevent economic catastrophe, rather than building for the future, a fact which Labour’s shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has exploited – dubbing him a “high tax, low growth” politician.

A former Tory minister agreed with the assessment, saying: “We don’t seem to have many pro-growth policies, we’ve pretty much given up on supply-side reforms.”

Mr Sunak’s future ambition to move from No 11 to No 10 is no secret. But he has been painstakingly subtle: one of his closest friends in Parliament told i they had not had a single discussion on the issue and insisted that anyone canvassing on his behalf was “doing it without permission”.

Allies of the Prime Minister are showing some signs of irritation – one No 10 insider said Mr Sunak “always gets to do the shiny stuff” by announcing interventions which often come with his signature plastered on them online.

His standing with colleagues remains high: one MP who entered the Commons at the same time as him said that “we always knew he was the most talented of any of us and the most likely to reach the top”.

Nevertheless, Wednesday will be a key moment in determining whether or not the Chancellor keeps his status as Britain’s most popular politician. According to Redfield & Wilton Strategies his approval ratings have slumped to +6, down from +35 last summer, as Mr Johnson’s fortunes have partially recovered. If voters continue to feel poorer, Mr Sunak’s fortunes will suffer too.