If it’s ‘coronavirus holiday’ season in rural Wales, the forecast is frosty for second home owners. From spreading the virus and skipping lockdown to unfairly claiming business relief, second home owners have had bad pandemic press. MP Liz Saville-Roberts and Gwynedd Leader Cllr Dyfrig Siencyn are among those calling Cardiff and Westminster to crack down. Is it time to change the locks on second homes?
Over forty years ago, the great Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams observed that every urban dystopia has its rural idyll. Coronavirus has given wide green space a whole new appeal compared to cramped city lockdown. Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and the Queen are currently all taking the country air.
Slipping the city worked out less well for Catherine Calderwood. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer was forced to resign after being dobbed in for flouting her own lockdown advice and weekending at her second home.
Here in rural Wales, curtain twitching is also having a comeback. I’ve caught myself glaring at suspiciously shiny cars passing my (only) home on the road to Snowdonia. Neighbours have got out the paint. ‘GO HOME!’ warn signs stuck to gates and fences – written in English, of course.
Two ingredients are simmering here. The first is privilege; the second, identity. Viruses don’t care about money, but the current crisis lays inequalities bare. Seeing some enjoy a second home when so many others cannot afford (or even have) a first leaves a bitter taste. The taste turns sour when privilege crosses the border to Welsh communities struggling to keep their young people, their livelihoods, and their language.
Research from the UK and elsewhere does suggest that second home owners contribute to the rural economy. The difference is often down to demand. Second home owners spend on local shops and tradespeople. They don’t send their kids to the village school or take the bus to work. Over the past decade, the nine most rural local authorities in Wales have together closed or merged 140 schools. Welsh rural bus patronage dropped 44% in the five years to 2017. The statistics on rural service deprivation are stark.
But second home owners are a symptom of rural socio-economic change, not the cause – and they’re probably not the tweed-clad bankers we imagine, either. Differences in relative affordability make urban salaries stretch to buy what lower rural wages often can’t. In research last year, Rhys Dafydd Jones and I interviewed (permanent) incomers to Ceredigion. They told us about trading tiny city flats for three or four bedrooms and a big backyard. They weren’t rich. Their money simply went further in rural Wales.
Not all second home owners have snapped up a bargain. Some are keeping Nain’s old house in the family. Others have a former first home they can’t sell, or might move back to. We need to be careful about caricaturing second home owners as cashed-up, council-tax dodging fraudsters. This isn’t to say there aren’t people doing well out of loopholes. Rural Wales just has far bigger problems than misappropriated funds.
The inequalities that let some relax in a Welsh rural idyll while others can’t get a local job, a house or a bus, are long-term and systematic. Spraypainted signs won’t solve these problems, and nor will police stops on the Menai Bridge. While government relief for (genuine) businesses is sorely needed, so is government investment in a better rural deal.
Too often, the rural view from policy windows takes in agriculture, environment and tourism, but misses that rural communities are places where people live – and not just at the weekend. It’s time to change that view, and it’s time to change the far from idyllic realities of rural life. So let’s stop being distracted by those who don’t live here, and start talking fairer futures for those who do.
Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins from Aotearoa / New Zealand and currently a postdoctoral researcher in rural and regional development at Aberystwyth University.