Why the death of the office could also endanger our Welsh language communities
Huw Prys Jones
Second homes in rural Wales have rightly become a source of much anger since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown.
Many of us have been outraged at the behaviour of some owners during the lockdown, such as those who were, according to police, trying to outwit them by travelling stealthily by night.
We do however need to become equally awake to a potentially far greater issue for Welsh language communities – namely that if working from home becomes the norm, the summer rush of tourists could become a more permanent residence.
The lockdown crisis of the past few months has accelerated a huge social and economic revolution that is taking place before our eyes.
The number of people able to afford holiday cottages in rural Wales is tiny compared to the ever-increasing numbers who, if working from home does stick, will be able to make them their permanent homes. They will be able to work from home or commute much further afield when their presence at the office will only need to be on an occasional basis.
Their impact on society is also likely to be far greater, and have huge implications for the last remaining strongholds of the Welsh language.
If anecdotal reports of the current rush to buy properties in rural Wales turn out to be true, we can be certain that this will become a huge political issue over the next few months.
Whilst second homes are most certainly a legitimate target, they are ‘low-hanging fruit’ in that are also a fairly easy target. Over the years, ‘tai haf’ (a meaningless term if there ever was one) has been conveniently used as a euphemism for incomers.
Many campaigners have felt more comfortable in concentrating their attacks on second homes as this offers a useful cloak of social justice sentiments to add to their concerns about linguistic change in the last remaining Welsh language communities.
The home workers will not be such a simple target – and in any case, this social and economic revolution represents opportunities as well as threats.
There is nothing at all wrong in working from home (I’ve been a home worker myself for many years) or in choosing to live in a rural area or in the countryside. It could be a hugely positive development if local Welsh-speakers could live in Welsh language strongholds rather than being lost in a ‘brain drain’ to the big cities.
On the other hand, the potential dangers to the Welsh language as a community vernacular are obvious. Among the greatest difficulties in increasing the number of Welsh speakers is the rate that knowledge of the language plummets in the few years after children and young people have left full-time education.
There is a direct correlation between the rate of decline and the percentage of the general population able to speak Welsh in various areas of Wales. Even in Gwynedd, the total number of young people aged 20-24 able to speak Welsh in 2011 was 35% less than the number of children aged 10-14 (i.e. the same cohort) able to speak Welsh 10 years earlier in 2001.
This is bad enough. In the counties of the old Gwent, however, the corresponding decline was a massive 85%.
Even in areas that are of less linguistic significance, any further large-scale immigration from elsewhere in the UK, will call into question Wales’ distinctiveness as a separate political entity.
Yes, we can all accept that everyone living in Wales, regardless of their place of birth, are part of the Welsh nation. This is perfectly fine and admirable – as far as individuals are concerned. Ultimately, however, the national movement cannot ignore the fundamental implications of the kind of demographic change that leads to an ever-closer union with England.
Many of us would welcome a more diverse Wales – so long as Welsh-speaking communities are part of that diversity. However, the long-term danger is of becoming another Cornwall – a nation subsumed into a larger cultural, political and linguistic block, a move that would make Wales less diverse, not more.
There is, of course, no one simple solution to the crisis facing us, and I could not claim to have any. There are, however, steps that need to be taken as a matter of urgency.
First and foremost, it is imperative for the future vitality of the Welsh language that a greater focus be given to those few areas where it remains dominant. Eryri and Llŷn will be among the prime desirable locations for newcomers, and it is vital that the Welsh Government and local councils do everything they can to enable Welsh-speakers to continue to be able to live and work from these vital heartlands.
Draconian measures against second homes sound fine in principle. We do, however need to be aware that some owners might simply respond by ‘flipping’ their properties or coming to live here permanently, which would do nothing to solve the issue.
Council leaders will also need to be on their permanent guard from advice by planning officials whose only solution will be to build more and more houses.
As well as government action, we also need greater assertiveness among us as individuals to demand that newcomers respect our language, culture and way of life.
Over the past couple of years, the distinctive white-on-red Cofiwch Dryweryn slogans have become an encouraging reminder in many parts of Wales that we are still here. Yet, we have to admit that Tryweryn in reality is yesterday’s battle.
What we really need in the mad summer of 2020 are clear and direct messages and action to address the immediate threats facing us. Any prospective buyers of property in Wales need to understand that whilst we pride ourselves in being an open-facing nation, our welcome cannot and must not be unconditional.