Tourism and second homes dominate early debate in Dwyfor Meirionnydd race
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
An almost entirely rural constituency and one of two in the county of Gwynedd, Dwyfor Meirionnydd is dominated by the Snowdonia National Park.
Stretching from Aberdyfi in the south to the fringes of the Nantlle Valley in the north, this geographically large unit contains the second highest proportion of Welsh speakers – 65% at the 2011 census.
But the visitor economy and the impact of holiday homes have made up much of the early debate in this key race, with Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s retirement meaning it will elect a new member no matter what happens on May 6.
While you would find the UK’s first inland nuclear power station here, Trawsfynydd stopped producing electricity in 1991 and well-paid jobs remain scarce.
This is despite economic hopes being pinned on the possibility of a new Small Modular Reactor (SMR) and for the former Llanbedr Airfield to play a major role in the UK’s contribution towards space exploration.
But as things stand, average earnings in Dwyfor Meirionnydd are well below both the Welsh and UK averages, with the economy largely reliant on farming and tourism.
It is this “over reliance” that splits opinion, with the Plaid Cymru-run local authority preparing a change of tack after a report found the level of wages generated to be “very low compared with other sectors and other areas”.
Prior to Covid-19 the tourism sector had grown to contribute over £1.35bn to Gwynedd’s economy, with 7.81m annual visitors said to help employ over 18,200 people.
With workers in swathes of Gwynedd said to be among the lowest paid in the UK, however, the report also raised concerns over “a lack of tourism balance” which was said to “increase pressure on the main honey pots and the impact of this on communities and the Welsh language”.
But with the authority having also decided to hike the council tax premium on second homes to 100% – thus essentially doubling what would be paid if it were a main residence – the plans have come under attack by the Conservative candidate.
Charlie Evans, hoping to become the first Tory representing this part of Gwynedd on the national stage since the 1860’s, described the strategy as “nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on the visitor economy.”
He said, “The council argues that tourism needs to work for local people. I agree, but I would make that the argument that tourism already does.
“This is an industry worth £1.35 billion annually and which employs 18,000 people across Gwynedd.
“The council argues they want all year-round employment within tourism but this ignores that tourism is inherently seasonal with peaks across the year.
“Seasonal employment does work for some people such as 16 and 17 year old’s or students who have come home for holiday periods.
“We shouldn’t be policing what private businesses do but instead build the infrastructure and put the tools in place to help them grow and succeed.
“There is an argument that this is a binary choice, that it is somehow either tourism or building new industries.
“My argument is that we can absolutely do both but it just requires imagination and political will.”
Since the current boundaries were drawn up in 2010, Plaid Cymru has won every Welsh Assembly and Westminster election, also holding the predecessor Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and Caernarfon seats since 1974.
Hoping to continue that tradition will be the party’s candidate, Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Defending the authority’s stance on tourism, he said that caring for local communities were at the heart of such a strategy.
“It puts the residents of Gwynedd at its heart and aims to ensure that this important sector works for the benefit of all who live here,” he said.
“It will add value to what we have. Footfall is not the best way to measure success within this sector, because we have such a large market nearby that can visit without contributing much to the local economy.
“There are a great many best practices in Gwynedd, from high quality barn conversions, to boutique B&Bs and innovative and award winning attractions, which all compliment their communities and culture.
“What we need is a Government that is willing to support the industry in a sustainable way.”
The Welsh Labour candidate, meanwhile, said that he had first-hand knowledge of the issue of low wages and “poor working conditions”, with the Llŷn native having worked in the area’s tourism sector for three years.
“It’s obvious that the majority of people in Dwyfor Meirionnydd don’t currently enjoy the benefits tourism brings,” said Cian Ireland.
“Indeed, only a minority can access the large amounts of wealth generated.
“We need to make tourism sustainable, look at ownership structures of businesses and ensure workers and communities own them and therefore get their fair share of this wealth.
“I want to work with communities to achieve this, alongside the co-operative
Peter Read, who defected to Propel last year and is hoping to win the seat, believes that a tourism tax could work but was also fearful on any adverse impact on the local economy.
“The tourist industry is worth just over a billion pounds and employs well over
20,000 from ice cream vans to hotels to caravan sites,” said Mr Read.
“Afonwen Laundry Chwilog relies on the hospitality industry and Harlech Frozen foods employs 200.
“The tourism tax, which has been implemented in Europe, is a good idea and maybe a way to fund or help the housing issue.
“But again how would it work and who would collect from day visitors?
“I would love to see Gwynedd tourism policy work and bring in higher paid jobs in the area but the infrastructure is not in place yet and where would these be sited, up in Bangor of Caernarfon again?
“Yes there are very successful rural businesses that supply a very unique product, but until we have better infrastructure through Gwynedd – which might spoil the beauty – we have only the tourist industry which does work.
“Even though some don’t like it, Plaid are on a crusade to kill this much needed industry.”
Glyn Daniels, standing for Llais Gwynedd, has previously floated the idea of introducing a charge to climb Snowdon.
But on a potential tourism tax more generally, he said: “Dwyfor Meirionydd is one of the most tourism dependent areas in Wales, and I believe a Welsh tourism tax would generate significant negative PR, and would also make tourists less likely to choose Wales as a holiday destination.
“If introduced in Wales I think it would have a damaging effect on the industry and other businesses that rely on tourism such as shops, pubs, cafes, they would all see a knock-on- effect.”
Second home premium doubled
Just as contentious, however, has been Gwynedd Council’s decision to increase the second home premium to 100%.
Expected to generate around £3m extra a year, the proceeds are designed to be ploughed back into a £77m housing action plan designed to build more properties and clear an “ongoing emergency” and rising waiting lists.
But this has also split opinion among the area’s would be Senedd Members, being described by Charlie Evans (Conservative) as “causing significant upset.”
“I have yet to see any evidence that it will have the desired outcome and it seemingly ignored the extensive research done by Barmouth Town Council that recommended a rise should not take place,” he said.
“We should avoid one-size-fits-all policies, as the second homes issue is different across the constituency.
“Over the last year, the number of second homes grew by 4% whereas the number of empty properties grew by 23%.
“What the Council should be doing instead is looking to do something about the 1,558 chargeable empty homes and converting them into affordable houses for local people and expanding housing supply elsewhere.”
But Mabon ap Gwynfor (Plaid) described the current situation as a “housing crisis,” with up to 60% or more of houses in some Gwynedd communities already being second homes or holiday lets.
Noting that this was pushing up house prices and rents up “way beyond what is within the reach of the local community,” he added: “The average house price in Abersoch or Aberdyfi is now over £400,000, while the average full-time wage is £21,000.
“Over 10% of the County’s housing stock are classed as second homes, and in early 2020 10% of houses here were advertised on short term let sites like AirBnB.
“And last year around 45% of houses sold in Dwyfor Meirionnydd were sold as Higher Rate homes, predominantly second homes.
“This is clearly unsustainable. The Labour Welsh Government has resolutely refused to do anything about it.
“They said that Councils were not using the powers that were available to them as an excuse for not doing anything. So, Gwynedd acted in the interests of their communities.”
Cian Ireland (Labour) , however, feels the local authority can also do more.
“The recent increase on the tax premium on second homes by Gwynedd Council is a welcome first step,” he added.
“However, questions need to be asked. Why have planning permissions for so many second homes, including Tom Nefyn’s Chapel in Pistyll, been given over the past 5 years?
” Young people such as myself should have the right to choose to stay locally in Dwyfor Meirionnydd without worrying about being stuck on low wages and having no affordable housing.
“Making tourism sustainable and tackling the local housing crisis is the only way to ensure this choice can happen.”
Peter Read (Propel), fears that the lack of differencial between a second and holiday home would cause issues for many, however.
“Local people are being affected by this, having been left a home in a will or doing up, ends up with them having to pay the premium.
“It doesn’t differentiate between second home and holiday home , this is where the problem exists.
“Some holiday home owners have being using the clause of registering it as a small business to avoid paying rates, which has angered many as the locals pay rates but the person with two homes doesn’t.
“But because of this premium I personally think many more will now take this route and less income will be coming into the Gwynedd pot, and again the locals will have another hike in their rates 3.7% during a pandemic.
“The business rate on holiday homes needs to be scrutinised and every home, second or not, has to pay rates.”
But Llais Gwynedd’s Glyn Daniels backs the hiking of the second home premium to the maximum permitted amount.
Describing housing “a bone of contention in Dwyfor Meirionydd for the last 50 years,” he claimed that successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle.
“The decision to raise the premium on second homes was the right decision and strengthens the case for Welsh Government to take action.
“I shall campaign tirelessly for planning laws that reflect the need for affordable homes for Local people who should be given priority in housing.
“Legal loopholes that allow holiday-home owners to register their properties as a business to avoid paying council tax must be closed.”
The remaining three candidates were also approached to comment, but sitting Gwynedd councillors Steve Churchman and Louise Hughes voted against the increasing the second home premium to 100% when members were asked to decide in March.
The full list of candidates contesting Dwyfor Meirionnydd is:
Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru
Stephen Churchman, Welsh Liberal Democrats
Glyn Daniels, Llais Gwynedd
Charlie Evans, Welsh Conservative Party
Louise Hughes, Reform UK
Cian Ireland, Welsh Labour
Michelle Murray, Freedom Alliance
Peter Read, Propel