Why tackling Dwyfor’s holiday homes crisis is key in the fight to save Welsh as a community language
Huw Prys Jones
The Welsh Government’s announcement this week of a pilot scheme to tackle excessive holiday homes in Dwyfor is a welcome step in the right direction.
Dwyfor is a particularly apt choice for such a scheme, as it is an area where the Welsh language is remarkably strong on the one hand, but also highly vulnerable on the other.
Its area, covering the westernmost part of Gwynedd, forms a key part of the main core heartland of the Welsh language in north-west Wales.
Back in the 2011 Census (the latest for which there are published results) 71.3% of the population of nearly 27,000 people aged three and over were able to speak Welsh. Whilst this is lower percentage than in places such as Caernarfon and larger villages in Arfon, it is higher than was recorded in any single community area or ward to the south of Gwynedd.
(Whilst there are variations between communities within Dwyfor, most are within a range that it is reasonable to deal with the whole area as a single unit for the purposes of this article.)
More remarkable than the high percentage of people able to speak Welsh in Dwyfor was the fact that it was actually higher than the 67.9% of the population of the area born in Wales.
Of those born in Wales, an overwhelming majority of between 92% and 96% were able to speak Welsh in all age groups. When one considers that some of these people born in Wales could easily have moved to Dwyfor from more Anglicised areas, it is fair to assume that nearly all those brought up here could speak Welsh.
Of those born outside Wales (the overwhelming majority of whom were from England), nearly a quarter (23.4%) were able to speak Welsh. It’s true of course that some of these Weslh-speaking incomers might have moved here as children; a small minority of them might well have been brought up in Welsh-speaking families in England. Nevertheless, it is an exceptionally high percentage, comparing with a corresponding figure of just 8% for Wales as a whole.
A further insight can be gained by comparing different age groups in Dwyfor.
The fact that 92.5% of children aged 3-15 were able to speak Welsh is to be expected; this age group records consistently higher percentages than the general population in all areas. More significant was to see almost as many – 88.6% – of young people aged 16-24 able to speak Welsh. Here the contrast with Wales as a whole is striking: the percentage of 37.6% of children aged 3-15 able to speak Welsh plummets to 21.6% amongst 16-24 year-olds.
The percentages speaking Welsh in Dwyfor then decline by age group, down to 61.9% of those aged 50-64 and 57.4% of those aged 65 and over. This reflects the higher proportions of people born outside Wales among those age groups – with only 58.5% of those aged 50-64 and 56.1% of those aged 65 and over born in Wales. Moreover, of those born outside Wales, the older they are, the least likely they are to be able to speak Welsh.
Despite so much to be positive about the Welsh language in Dwyfor, there are also warning signs to be ignored at our peril.
The 71.3% able to speak Welsh in 2011 compares with 81.5% back in 1981. Then, there were only 4,562 people unable to speak Welsh throughout Dwyfor; 30 years later, that number had grown to 7,709 – an increase of 69%. Equally disturbing is to see a drop of 900 in the number of Welsh speakers, despite an increase of 2,200 in the general population. As there is no evidence of any decline in the ability to speak Welsh among the native population, it is a clear sign of gradual demographic displacement over the decades.
As we await the results of the 2021 Census, we will be able to see the extent to which this trend has exacerbated over the past 10 years. We also need to keep in mind that these might not reflect the full gravity of the situation, as the Census was held during the March lockdown and before this summer’s mad rush on properties.
Tackling excessive tourism
The pilot scheme is to be particularly welcomed in the fact that it recognises that Dwyfor as an area that needs and deserves special attention.
What the scheme will hopefully do is to help show what kinds of interventions can work. It’s clear that excessive tourism is causing problems in much of rural Wales, and that there are environmental as well as cultural imperatives to control the situation. It is less clear to what extent the spiralling house prices are entirely due to second homes. Local people may also be outpriced by a general migration of permanent residents from the metropolitan centres of north-west England.
Whilst this movement has been more gradual here than in most other parts of rural Wales over the past decades, we cannot assume that this will continue in the post-Covid working-from-home world. Neither can we assume that the current high percentages of incomers learning Welsh will continue at a similar level if there is further significant demographic change. We have seen far too many parts of Wales pass a critical tipping point where the incentive to learn the language rapidly diminishes.
Dwyfor’s pristine environment is already recognised by the fact that much of the region is covered by the Llŷn Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Eryri National Park. It is time that its language and culture were offered the same kind of protection.
Quite simply, the Welsh language cannot afford to lose its dominance in Dwyfor if it is to thrive as a community language. Measures to curb the effects of excessive tourism here are every bit as important to its survival as any expansion of bilingual education in more Anglicised parts of Wales.
Dwyfor – Angor yr Iaith (the anchor of the Welsh language) was the motto of the former district council for the area. For such a claim to remain credible, Llŷn and Eifionydd must be given they priority they deserve as key frontline areas of the Welsh language’s core heartland.