‘Everyone wants a piece of Cornwall’: locals up in arms over second homes

Desperate residents in north Cornwall have described themselves as an “endangered species” and are calling for compulsory purchases of unoccupied second homes amid a deepening crisis in affordable housing.

Jonny Weeks www.theguardian.com 

The coastal village of St Agnes – located on what one estate agent has labelled the “platinum edge” of the UK – has witnessed a mass protest and hostile graffiti in recent weeks, as outrage has turned into activism.

Cath Navin (left) and Camilla Dixon, who run the protest group First Not Second Homes. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Cath Navin, co-founder of protest group First Not Second Homes, said: “Last month, there were 111 Airbnbs in and around St Agnes, 96 of which were whole houses. If you looked for long-term rentals, the closest place was Portreath (seven miles away). There’s nothing locally for people to live in.”

The group has organised peaceful rallies around the county in recent months – the next is at nearby Porthtowan this Sunday. They are campaigning for the introduction of licences for second homes, new planning laws, and an end to “no-fault” evictions, which allow landlords to rapidly expel tenants without good reason.

“Ideally, I’d also like to see some retrospective action with compulsory purchases in places where communities are being eroded,” she said. “That’s quite radical, but those things have been introduced internationally so why not here?”

Co-founder Camilla Dixon adds: “Ultimately I want to see no second homes until everybody has a decent first home.”

Cornwall has 12,776 second homes and more than 11,000 holiday lets, while 21,817 people were on its housing register this week. Last year, the council installed emergency one-bed shelters for vulnerable people in Truro and Penzance. It has also placed people into bed and breakfast accommodation and static caravans.

Truro resident Samantha Quinn and her teenage daughter have been forced out of several rental homes in recent years because the properties have been sold. They have waited unsuccessfully on the housing register, lived in temporary holiday accommodation and moved into a friend’s house when there was no alternative.

“To say to your child, ‘I actually don’t have a home for you’, felt really rubbish – I felt like I had failed at life,” she said. “As a professional who works full-time in the charity sector and doesn’t have any credit history issues, it’s really weird to think that I was in that position.

“The council’s advice last time was, ‘you don’t have to leave your home until you’re evicted by a court’, but I worried that would affect our future prospects. I feel so relieved and lucky to have found a home again.”

Lifelong St Agnes resident Nicola Bunt lives in a one-bed wooden cabin in her landlady’s garden. Bunt runs a local cleaning business but refuses to clean holiday lets, even as she tries to save a deposit for a mortgage.

“My friends are here, my job is here and this will always be my home, so I really want to stay in St Agnes, but there’s no opportunity for me to buy here, it feels really out of reach,” she said. “Everyone wants a piece of Cornwall and they’re actually ruining what Cornwall is all about.”

So outraged was one local pensioner by the construction of another mansion in St Agnes that she defaced an unoccupied seafront property with the words “No more investment properties” and “Second homes owners give something back: rent or sell your empty houses to local people at a fair price”.

Speaking anonymously, she said: “When my husband and I bought our place here in 1998 it cost £80,000. We had really ordinary jobs and we could afford to buy here.

“Now, half of the properties nearby are holiday lets or second homes and young local people are competing for housing with millionaires. It makes me furious. We’re like an endangered species. This is not the platinum edge of the UK, this is people’s homes and communities.”

Graffiti painted onto the walls of a seafront property in Cornwall.

Graffiti painted on to the walls of a seafront property in Cornwall. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Cllr Andrew George, formerly MP for St Ives, believes tax loopholes for property investors must be closed immediately.

“For years, the public purse has been used to subsidise second homes,” he said. “Thousands of second home owners avoid paying council tax (by qualifying as business premises) and then claim small business rates relief. That loophole cost Cornwall £17m per year before Covid.”

The national government also paid almost £170m in Covid grants to Cornish “holiday let business premises” during the pandemic, more than half of which went to owners who live outside the county.

“Rather than rewarding second home owners with public money, they should be making them pay a great deal more,” George said. “It’s not the politics of envy, it’s the politics of social justice.”