Furious residents say they are being driven from their seaside town by holiday rentals that have “hollowed out” their community.
Alice Clifford www.independent.co.uk
People living in Whitstable have expressed frustration that homes previously filled by locals are now being used by visitors throwing loud parties, blocking driveways, taking up vital parking spaces and leaving the streets covered in rubbish.
With long-term neighbours being replaced with a constant stream of unfamiliar faces, people are feeling as though the town has been ripped of its sense of community.
Those desperate to find a solution attended a meeting last Friday to discuss ways to regulate the industry, hosted by members of Canterbury City Council’s Green Party in a bid to find a way to balance the issues with the benefits of tourism.
One woman said she “really struggles as a resident of this town” as working from home has become an impossible task with constant noise.
Another added: “People don’t care where they park – it’s cheaper to pay a fine than pay for a day’s parking.”
People applauded when one local said “there is no longer a sense of community”.
One resident, Jonathan Hollow, added: “I have lived in Whitstable since 2006. I’m right in the centre. When I moved in I had long-term neighbours each side of my terraced house. Now one side is a second home, and the other side is a holiday rental property for short-term lets.
“The owner of the holiday rental property has been very considerate in response to the requests I have made, but he is not there all the time. He can’t legislate for the behaviour of everyone who passes through his house.
“You do get more noise – confusion with people knocking on your door seeing if you can help them with lost keys. Sometimes there are problems with bins being left out on a street.
“All these are incidental nuisances, but generally having this feeling where you know fewer of your neighbours is resulting in a deterioration in the life of the community in Whitstable.
“We do need tourists but we need to find a happy way of living with tourism. I would like to see Canterbury City Council immediately introduce a voluntary code of practice which owners can sign up to that sets high standards for neighbourliness.”
As it stands, a property can be used as a short-term holiday let with no notice or permission needed.
One of the possible regulations discussed was making it so that people hoping to convert future properties into short-term lets have to apply for change-of-use planning permission.
This is something the government is considering, with a new planning use class created for lets not used as a sole or main home.
But it would only apply to new hosts and not existing second homes already used as holiday lets.
Sophie Williams, 52, welcomed the idea. She said: “Having a holiday let next door, I didn’t initially know it was happening. There was a person knocking at my door because he couldn’t get in. That was one of the first incidents I dealt with.
“It’s not always parties late at night, although last New Year’s Eve a party went on until 8am.”
She added: “I like to sit and read in my garden and their garden has been done up beautifully for barbecues so there are garden parties three times a week in the summer. It’s upsetting and makes me not want to live there.
“I think they should be paying council tax because they have taken away a property that should be residential.”
According to rough data obtained by Councillor Clare Turnbull, Canterbury City Council could be missing out on almost £500,000 of revenue.
This is because hundreds of holiday lets in Whitstable are not registered for council tax and don’t pay business rates either.
At the meeting, people voted in favour of introducing council tax for second homes and owners of holiday lets. Some feel the tax should even be doubled for people with second homes – something councils running tourist hotspots across the country are considering.
Limiting the number of nights each year a property can be rented out for was also suggested among other ideas.
While welcoming regulations, resident Jo Taylor feels they need to be tougher, saying: “This is not a witch hunt. We still want people to come here for their holidays but it needs to be a nice place for residents too.
“We have quite a few holiday lets down our road and people are coming and going all the time. You don’t know who these people are. At least when you have neighbours you recognise who is who.
“Because there are so many holiday lets and not enough family homes, you don’t see as many people in the winter so the community is losing out massively.
“Lots of the shops are shut in the winter, the restaurants are closed, the people in the shops take less money because we’re a seaside town and there are not as many people staying here.”
She added: “The regulations suggested are all a bit too ‘light touch’, they need to be more dynamic and forceful. The people who own the holiday lets need to be more accountable for what happens in them.
“We need to be able to know how many properties we are dealing with because we are saying all this, but we don’t know the full facts. I would like to see more meetings like this, so we can get an in-depth view on how we can get that balance.”
Another person, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Holiday lets mean there are fewer rental properties for young people and families. The homes that are left, nobody local can afford because the rents sky-rocket with demand.
“People are moving further away just so they can afford to live.”
Rebecca Sewell from Tankerton runs the house-keeping business Halos and earns around 70 per cent of her income through holiday lets.
While she supports the industry, as a local she also welcomes regulations.
The 49-year-old said: “While I do have concerns about people having affordable homes to live in the area, I also have invested interest in holiday lets being here. The housekeeping jobs provide income for local people and for the town. They support women in particular back into work after having children.
“Holiday lets have driven prices of the rental market up, but the flip side is it does provide work. I can see both sides which is why I came to the meeting to see if there is a way to balance that.”
It wasn’t just concerned neighbours who attended.
One man who lets out his spare room to tourists, while still living in his home, also welcomed regulations. But he felt they should be on a different scale for set-ups like his.
Most people agreed these types of lets are more sustainable and cause less problems for the town. As a result, the majority agreed regulations for these types of lets should not have to follow such strict rules.
The meeting was held following an online consultation sent to residents in September asking for their views.
While emotions were high from people desperate to find a solution, there was also a sense of hope that balance could be found. Residents’ responses and views on the proposed regulations will be combined for the next stage of the consultation locally and nationally.
Cllr Turnbull said: “People made strong contributions to the ideas behind the registration scheme and the change of use and regulations. It’s a massively emotional issue and I think the main point was it’s about the community.
“What was a close knit, really vibrant town, is becoming hollowed out by holiday lets taking over people’s homes that were habited by young families before with children going to local schools.
“It is driving people out of the town which is desperately sad. People who want to stay in the town that have always lived here can’t find rental properties or they can’t afford to buy because the prices have gone up so high.
“The council is due to set up a working group on this issue to recognise this is an important issue in Whitstable. I’m going to make sure they deliver on this working group and they take the issue seriously.”
Labour councillor Pip Hazelton, recently appointed as the new-look city council’s cabinet member for housing, said: “We want to see as much affordable accommodation made available to local families as possible.
“We do understand we need to balance that with tourism. We shall be setting up a cross-party politically balanced working group to look into exactly how we will do this as soon as possible. This will be an opportunity to delve into the complexities, government guidelines and legislations, while looking at the needs of our district.
“There isn’t one simple answer. What we don’t want is communities hollowed out and destroyed by holiday lets. People are seeing homes as an investment to be exploited rather than homes for local people.”