UK

St Ives residents to vote on second home restrictions

St Ives

Sarah has found dog excrement outside her front door again. It keeps happening, enough times that Sarah does not believe this is an accident.

"Dogs aren't normally that choosy about where they go," she says, with a nervous laugh.

Sarah's house in St Ives is one of two she owns. The other, her main residence, is in Surrey and Sarah rents out the Cornish house to holidaymakers, staying there herself on occasions. And this, Sarah believes, is why someone has decided to foul her doorstep.

"It's a message saying we don't want incomers staying. Our property has gone up in value, pricing local people out of the market."

That is certainly a common complaint in Cornwall. Wages are low, many people working seasonal jobs in the tourism industry. Yet housing costs are high, inflated by the huge demand by people who have chosen the county for their second home, to visit or as an investment.

Now, the local council in St Ives has decided to take action to change this situation. On 5 May, the council will ask residents to vote on a new town plan, which includes a promise to restrict second home ownership.

If the vote is passed, new housing projects will get planning permission only on condition that the homes are reserved for people to live in full-time. Developers will not be allowed to sell the buildings to anyone who has a residence elsewhere.

Image caption Councillor Andrewes points out that some housing, such as farm dwellings, already come with restrictions

"The planning system is there to meet communities' needs," says Tim Andrewes, one of the councillors backing the plan and a member of the Green Party.

He points out that some housing is already built with ownership restrictions, such as farm dwellings which must be occupied by people who work in agriculture. Similar restrictions could be applied to new residential property in St Ives, reserving it for people who need a place to live.

Democracy

His view is echoed by the Conservative mayor of St Ives, Linda Taylor. She acknowledges that second home owners bring money into St Ives, spending in local shops and cafes, but thinks having so many absent owners is not good for the town in the long-term.

"We don't want the community dying," she says. "We need to plan for the future."

There are more than 1.5 million second homes in England and Wales. In Scotland, about 10,000 second homes are bought and sold every year. Yet, many see this as the inevitable consequence of living in a free market economy.

Image caption Steve McTeare, who runs an architects firm, says property restrictions would end up being counterproductive

Steve McTeare's architectural practice has worked on several housing developments in St Ives and is converting a disused hotel there into eight flats. He insists they should be sold to whoever wants to buy them.

"We live in a democracy," he says. "You shouldn't restrict who can own a home."

Steve's argument is a pragmatic one, as well as moral. Restricting who buys a new property, he says, will put developers off coming to St Ives, meaning there is less housing supply in the long run.

"A developer will always look to maximise profits - therefore restriction is going to result in less interest."

The Conservative government also opposes what St Ives is doing. Housing Minister Brandon Lewis said it would interfere with people's fundamental rights.

"Trying to control private ownership via the planning system will ultimately require intrusive state surveillance of every property," he says.

Mr Lewis may be out of step with public opinion though, at least in the West country. Research conducted at Exeter University found that most people in the region had a negative attitude towards second home owners living (or rather not living) in their midst.

Two jobs, no flat

They believe it makes buying a home far harder if some people have two steps on the property ladder, while others are struggling to reach the first rung.

Caroline is struggling. A resident of St Ives for eight years, she spends her days working in a shop and her evenings waitressing in a restaurant. Yet despite having two jobs, she says it is out of the question for her to afford even renting a flat on her own.

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Media caption'I'm living in a caravan and that's purely because of the second home owners'

What really upsets her is when she sees all the second homes left empty, particularly in the winter when many holiday lets sit unused, and second home owners do not come down to visit.

"If it's empty, and there are people needing housing, that just doesn't make sense," she says.

There are several votes taking place in Britain on 5 May - for regional parliaments, assemblies and councils. It is fair to say the second home referendum in St Ives may not dominate the national news that day.

But housing issues are continuing to climb the political agenda. So if this town in the far south-west of England does stop developers supplying the second home market, there is a chance that other local authorities will pursue similar measures of their own.

Follow Paul Moss on Twitter @BBCPaulMoss

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