Carrie Harper, Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Queensway ward on Wrexham Council
We have for many years quite rightly acknowledged the importance of protecting our natural environment, yet for some illogical reason, there has been a taboo against championing the same principles of sustainability and balance when it comes to our communities and the people within them.
In fact, our planning system affords more protection to newts, bats and trees than it does to our culture, language and people. No offence to the newts and bats of course but this seems to me to be a bizarre imbalance by anyone’s standards.
Wales has for many years now been in the midst of a housing crisis. We have a crisis in terms of affordability, a crisis of overdevelopment and a long-standing but escalating crisis of second home ownership. These issues dramatically impact on local house prices, local identity and inevitably, the Welsh language.
To be blunt, it’s a crisis driven by housing demand from across the border and in a post-Covid and post-Brexit landscape, it’s only set to escalate. With Brexit bringing higher health insurance and possibly other restrictions on travel and home ownership too, many may choose to re-evaluate retirement options.
Add in potential Covid travel restrictions and Costa del Cymru becomes a very real possibility.
Wales is a perfect case study in terms of what happens when you allow market forces to control your planning system and leave your communities defenceless. Money talks and when it comes to Wales, many are looking to cash in.
The results aren’t pretty. Many of us have lived in towns that have effectively been building sites for the last 20 years, resulting in countless housing estates that could be any town, anywhere. We have too many rural communities that sit empty for six months out of the year because of second home ownership. That combined with an ever-growing retiree market and a surge in holiday lets has driven up house prices beyond the reach of local families in many areas and shattered communities.
It’s a disaster by any definition of the word, and it can’t be allowed to continue. The current Labour Government have shown little interest in addressing any of these issues. In fact, they have often championed more of the same.
The fundamental question is this: do our communities, our language and our culture have a right to exist? If the answer is yes, we urgently need to take action.
I’ve written at length previously about the issue of overdevelopment and indeed have campaigned for a sustainable approach to planning for well over a decade but the issue that is filling my social media timeline of late is that of second homes.
With 40% of properties in Gwynedd sold as second homes over the last year and local councillors there stating 60% of locals are priced out of the housing market, frustrations are understandably high. Although Gwynedd is the worst county affected, Ynys Mon isn’t far behind and Conwy is also above the Welsh average for second home ownership.
In fact, the majority of authorities in the north of Wales have a significant issue with second home ownership and lack of affordability. This is no small issue, with Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire also facing significant problems.
This issue also highlights the sheer lack of joined-up thinking in terms of policy coming from Welsh Government currently. What is the logic of aiming to create 1 million Welsh speakers on the one hand, whilst failing to create policies to ensure the language survives as a living community language on the other?
How can you talk about future generations and sustainability in one breath, without acknowledging the blatant lack of a sustainable housing strategy in the next?
There is no balance, the housing situation in Wales is out of control and it’s been spiralling for far too long.
But there are solutions, we see them in action in other parts of the world and indeed in other parts of the UK regularly, so why are we not bringing the threads together to implement a rounded solution here?
We should cap the number of holiday homes in hot spot areas where locals are priced out, this has already been done in countries such as Switzerland, where holiday homes are restricted to designated holiday resorts and further restrictions can be imposed on a local level. The Netherlands, along with areas of Spain and regions of Italy have brought in similar policies. Even within the UK, Northumberland is proposing the same solution.
We need to look at the potential of a two-tier housing market solution to ensure our young people can afford to stay in the communities they were brought up. This is already in place in Guernsey for instance, where only 7% of the housing stock is made available to the open market, they also operate a closed market accessible to locals or those with work permits.
We also need to close legal loopholes which see holiday home owners effectively opting out of paying council tax. We need to devolve more power in terms of planning and housing to local authorities who better understand what their communities need. We need to genuinely drill down into the issue of ‘affordability’, trying to address that currently feels like trying to nail a blancmange to the wall.
The problems are solvable, there is a balance to be found, what we lack currently in Welsh Labour is the political will to tackle the problem. Devolution also brings its own limits and ultimately, we need Independence if we are to tackle this issue without one hand tied behind our back.
Time is running out, once our communities are gone, there is no bringing them back and many are on the brink. Our community ecosystems are as delicate as any site of special interest, any mountain range or grassland.
The views here may be spectacular but the real beauty of Wales is in our communities, it’s time to give them the protection they need, along with the respect they deserve