Devon and Cornwall communities left empty by scourge of second homes
An Office for National Statistics report reveals that Cornwall now has the highest number of second homes in the country, with South Devon in fourth place. Simon Parker examines the long-term effect on communities where properties stand empty for most of the year.
The homes are looking pretty, the gardens groomed, windows gleam with fresh paint and there's nothing out of place. The village is looking picture postcard perfect – a veritable chocolate box. But where are all the people?
Well, the folks at Rose Cottage are back home in Knightsbridge, the couple from the top of the hill are at their other place in the Scottish Highlands and Mr and Mrs Whatsit who bought the old rectory spend most of their time on a yacht in the Med. Delightful people, every one. They always come down at Christmas. And sometimes for a week in the summer. You can't miss them. Soft-tops and squeaky tyres, smart slacks and loafers. Always happy to stop for a (loud) chat. And generous, too, offering to take charge of any number of village institutions.
It's easy to poke fun at second-home owners or paint caricatures of them, but the fact remains that while as individuals they make little impact, collectively their kind have altered the fabric of many communities in Cornwall and Devon – rarely for the better. Closed schools and post offices, grocery shops selling trinkets, the rot is deep and seemingly permanent. Figures show that almost every community in Cornwall and Devon now has at least one second home, while in a handful of places the ratio is a staggering 75 per cent. It equates to an average across Cornwall alone of one in 20 properties. The latest Office for National Statistics indicate that some 10,169 people in England and Wales now own second homes in Cornwall – the highest in the country. And this figure doesn't take into account those from abroad who have a stake in the region's property stock
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Over the past two decades, long-term residents in almost every town and village have watched helplessly as once-workaday communities striving to bring up families and build on the past have effectively been transformed into playgrounds for the selfish.
It's tough enough in the less-glamorous corners of the region, but for Padstow, Roseland, Porlock, Salcombe and others, the battle is lost. Lively with visitors during a few summer holiday weeks, crammed at Christmas, but for months in bleak November and February resembling ghost towns.
At 73, Leon Pezzack has seen every phase of these changes at first hand. A Mousehole man born and bred, Leon is not afraid to speak his mind on the subject. Today, seven out of ten properties in his home village are either second "homes" or holiday lets.
"Second homes have ruined this village and many more besides," he said. "The shift from permanent residency to part-time represents a disintegration of our society. How can these people be involved in village life if they're not here for most of the year?"
Leaning on a railing overlooking The Cliff this week, Leon was far from sanguine about the future of the village his family has cherished for generations. The son of a carpenter and grandson of fishermen, he has witnessed the character of his home change out of all recognition in just 20 years. Family and community bonds that remained rock solid for generations have been swept away on a tide of profiteering, assisted by an absence of preventative legislation.
"To begin with it was quite gradual," reflects Leon as he scans the waterfront properties, counting those lived in full-time on one hand.
"The big changes came in the Thatcher years. Properties were suddenly seen by wealthy Londoners in particular as commercial opportunities rather than 'homes'. Suddenly, cottages were being bought up for next to nothing, done up, sold on – but not lived in. These people saw the houses not as places to live but as business opportunities. This has happened ever since, with the prices continuing to go up and up. Places are sold over and over again but never lived in full time. This has had a terrible effect on village life."
Leon and his wife Sylvia, who set up Mousehole's biennial maritime festival a few years ago as a way of helping to preserve some of the village's seagoing traditions, believe if the community has any future it must retain its links with the past.
"If people don't understand what built Mousehole we can't hope to build a future," said Leon. "Otherwise the village will become like anywhere else. Children in particular need to have a sense of place."
Earlier this month – as at Christmas and New Year – the population of Mousehole briefly swelled as the village filled up with part-time residents, down for half-term week.
"There were dozens of youngsters going round the village, knocking on people's doors for Halloween," said Leon. "But I didn't know one of them. It's not very long ago that I knew every boy and girl and knew their parents. That's all changed with second homes. Down for half-term and gone again. They may be very nice people, but they're killing village life."
Sylvia is keen to stress the distinction between newer full-time residents – who, she says, contribute hugely to the life of Mousehole, its organisations and community life – and those who visit their properties only once or twice a year.
"There are a lot of very nice people who have moved into the village," said Sylvia. "And without their hard work and commitment a lot more things would have already come to a halt."
Sylvia doesn't blame Mousehole people themselves for making the most of properties that might have been in their family for generations: by selling at a high price, the current generation is able move to newer, often more spacious properties in nearby Newlyn and Penzance and have a decent sum left over.
Leon added: "The reality is that local people simply can't afford to live here now. There are places going for huge sums. What working person with a family can afford such inflated prices for little places that were once fish lofts?
"A lot of people differentiate between summer lets and second homes but I don't see the difference really because the effect on village life is exactly the same. The fact is that second homes have killed Mousehole's family way of life forever."
The couple have two grown-up sons who live away. Their daughter, Debbie, died suddenly five years ago from a rare heart condition. A keen rower, Debbie was, like her parents, determined to work for Mousehole's future.
"I am now the last Pezzack in Mousehole," said Leon. "And I can rant and rage all I like but I have no power to do anything about it."
With only one non-tourist shop left in the former fishing port, entire rows of houses standing empty for much of the year and numbers falling at the village school, the Pezzacks are not optimistic.
"Rock has gone, Cadgwith has gone, St Mawes has gone," said Leon. "Mousehole will soon be gone too."
He looks back across the waterfront to properties once all inhabited by people he knew.
"Some nights you can come down on to the harbour and there's hardly a light on," he said. "The old Lobster Pot restaurant used to employ 20 people. Now it's six luxury flats. None of them are lived in. See that yard there? Four houses – only one lived in. There were families in every one of them not so long ago."
His voice trails off.
"Empty, empty, empty..."