How Norfolk is paying the price for second homes
- Credit: Matthew Usher
Is it time to discourage second-homers, asks Nick Conrad. Easier said than done...
Do we need a radical rethink on second-home ownership? There is growing frustration in villages across Norfolk where locals are complaining that many of the properties lay vacant. For much of the year curtains are drawn, the post mounts on the doormat, lawns are cut by freelance gardeners who 'pop over' to keep the place looking respectable.
New figures show that two-fifths of second homes in the whole of the East of England are in our county. And in North Norfolk the numbers have reached an all-time high. More than half of all the houses in some villages on our coastline aren't occupied year-round. The wealthy incomers buying power inflates the market, so few locals can afford to remain there. Many are asking: are these part-timers to blame for ripping the heart out of village life - or are they essential to our economy?
Without adequate and affordable places to live, the next generation is leaving the communities in which they were raised. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my part of North Norfolk. The flight of working-age people in turn leads to school closures, a loss of services and ultimately hollowed-out communities.
For local shopkeepers, hairdressers, cafe owners or any other businesses, what good is a 'local resident' who is never there? Should we be calculating the economic loss to the area caused by homes lying empty for most of the year?
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It's always the way. First comes the trend-setters, bewitched by the unique charm of rural tranquillity. Better still, enticed by the big saving of cheap charming property. Soon to follow are the property investors, eyes opened to the qualities the bohemians saw. Prices rise. Eventually many locals feel they are strangers in their own communities. One parish council chairman claimed the accusation of Nimbyism is unfairly levelled at locals. He says: 'It's the newcomers who resist change, they don't wish to alter the tranquillity which initially drew them to Norfolk.'
The crux of the problem is years of failing to build and provide affordable rural houses. Let's be frank, this isn't the fault of incomers. In the main, they've enriched our communities. The tag 'Chelsea-on-Sea' is valuable and helps promote Norfolk as a desirable place to live. But 'mind the gap' - the scrap for bricks and mortar is David vs Goliath when you pit low-waged local inhabitants against cash-rich London-based folk. The eye-watering asking prices of some modest Norfolk homes makes a mockery of the word 'affordable'. And with no safeguards to stop entrepreneurial souls selling to realise the equity, affordability lacks longevity.
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The mix of houses being built is also wrong. Builders seeking as much bang for their buck (and who wouldn't?) throw up big house after big house. I've spoken to many elderly residents who would love to downsize but can't. They simply don't have enough smaller houses in their village. When one appears in the EDP Property pages it's gobbled up in record time. Bungalows are like hen's teeth.
We need to build more properties. We need to better understand the types of houses the modern British family need. Maybe we should build properties which suit the current social need? A continually-changing cradle-to-grave solution. We also need to open up more pockets of land for self-builds. Any excess in land fees can then be invested in building smaller units for housing associations.
Of course, another option is to increase the tax on second-home owners. The government modified stamp duty as a clear move in that direction - whether it has actually worked is open for debate. Some argue that hitting hard-working professionals, who value an escape to our county, in the pocket, could have ramifications. Quite apart from being deeply unpopular, would this policy really instigate the kind of exodus back to the city that some commentators would have you believe?
For me the saddest part of this is the apparent loss of community. It takes all the generations - regardless of where you're from - to unite. Where in the past children would play out on the green, the play equipment is looking a bit rusty. The shops are gone and the village hall has a 'For Sale' sign outside the front. Thank God this picture of gloom isn't yet reality in most Norfolk villages, but we stand to lose a lot unless we can get the balance right and ensure there is life in our rural communities year-round.