We know that housing problems are national, even international, and that Frome shares issues like soaring rents, creeping AirBnB dominance and unchecked growth of empty second homes with many other towns. Could it be that residents of those locations can help us towards a solution?
Cities and rural areas alike are experiencing desperate housing needs but we wanted to find out what an area in the South West was doing to draw attention to this urgent situation. We decided to contact the council at South Hams in Devon, whose tourist areas have attracted holiday homes investors to such an extent that they declared a Housing Crisis a year ago to bring housing into the spotlight and help shape their policies. South Hams covers part of Dartmoor National Park and coastal attractions like Dartmouth.
We contacted Cllr Judy Pearce, the leader of South Hams District Council and asked her how useful the declaration had been, a year on from that decision. She said, “The declaration of a housing crisis has been hugely successful here in bringing the housing situation up the agenda. We have the problem of a very high percentage of second homes and short term lets in our district which makes the situation particularly acute… The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic and two summers of people not being able to take holidays abroad as the number of short term lets and s.21 evictions can be correlated, even if not directly in every case.”
In order to clarify what was meant by a Housing Crisis Declaration, the council listed 10 actions including increasing the council tax on second homes and more regulation on holiday homes as businesses. Cllr Pearce said, “Increasing the profile is beginning to pay off – the 200% council tax for second homes came forward earlier than it might have done through direct lobbying of our local MPs, but also through getting the message out to all Devon MPs through our Devon Districts Leaders’ group. Equally we feel we have accelerated the conditions for business rates evidence being brought actioned rather than side-lined.”
South Hams area tourism is thriving but if local people aren’t looked after, businesses which exist to serve those tourists will have trouble finding staff as well as the general imbalance the community is feeling. The council has estimated that 75% of new build properties are being bought for holiday lets which is not sustainable and prompted the urgent need for action. Frome’s tourism might not be on the same scale but the top holiday spots further west could be the canaries in the coal mine for us to pay attention to.
There is now a Devon Housing Task Force as a result of the Housing Crisis Declaration which includes representation from all the local authorities in Devon. Cllr Pearce says “We [the task force] are setting up a housing commission with the University of Exeter to look into new ways of delivering the housing we need rather than what the government prescribes.”
Policies being tried and tested at a local authority level like this could provide the results that the government can’t ignore and could eventually lead to national guidelines or changes in the law. As long as buying a house is seen as more of an investment than a home, quality of life in the UK will continue to be stretched thinly for many people. Legislation on second homes is an obvious place to start more scrutiny and it seems that local councils are starting to take that into their own hands.