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Tanya Gold

The social cost of Cornwall’s second home boom

The social cost of Cornwall's second home boom
Houses in Polperro, Cornwall
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Cornwall has a boast this week and it has nothing to do with ice-cream or tides: we have made more than 2000 offers to house Ukrainian refugees. I am not surprised. The duchy is filled with second homes, and they are very often empty. Harboursides are dark in winter and the old town in St Ives is no more than a monied ghetto now.

Since the war began it is often said that it is easier to offer refuge to those closest to you. The Polish don’t want Syrians, for instance, but they want Ukrainians. In Cornwall the opposite is true. A second homeowner offers his cottage to a Ukrainian family, and that is decent, but he will ignore the misery of Cornish families: of his neighbours, who he does not consider neighbours because all his relationships are transactional. It is likely guilt, too: he has no personal responsibility for what has happened to Ukraine, and he knows it.

That is less true of Cornwall, which is now more of a business than a place, with an owner and a servant class. This week graffiti was daubed on a second home in St Agnes: 'rent or sell your empty houses to local people at a fair price'. The anger is righteous because there are two Cornwalls now. The first Cornwall – the one of the travelogues made by outsiders – is wealthy, plush and lived in only half the year. It is an oblivious land of depressingly thematic nautical-themed décor and £20 lobsters. It insults the native Cornwall for its miseries: a few weeks ago, Sir Tim Smit, a native dutchman and owner of the Eden Project, said of the Cornish: 'You feel, I don’t, but you feel like saying, well if you were a bit more f••king articulate you could speak up yourself, but you haven’t.'

The second Cornwall is harder to find, as Smit said in his ghastly way. It is poor to the point of despair. Wages are seasonal and low. Prices are absurdly high: a thirty-minute bus journey can be £5. Secure housing is beyond the reach of more people each day. Council housing is oversubscribed and conditions in rentals and emergency council housing are dangerous. A friend, a working single mother, sent me a photograph of her emergency housing, though she is too afraid of losing even this accommodation to complain. The floor was literally a carpet of mould, and she was duly hospitalised with a lung complaint. Another friend told me that when she told her landlord she had asked her emotionally abusive husband to leave and she would be living alone with three children in the property, he raised her rent by £100 a month. Both these landlords are local men. It is not only outsiders who exploit the desperate, and it is cynical to say otherwise. If some of the persecutors are Cornish, so are all of the victims. Young people live in tiny flats with water running down the walls. Long-term tenants are evicted as landlords cash in for the Airbnb boom. Tent cities languish in fields.

I would like people to accept that they do not need a second home or a home as an investment for a comfortable retirement: that the price for their comfort is paid for in human misery. But that is unlikely, and we are not a country to legislate for it. We should, but we won’t. So, we need more housing, but it is held up by planning laws, political infighting and NIMBYISM. Everyone is for more housing in principle in Cornwall, just not near them. A plan for 29 affordable homes in Newlyn was objected to by the already housed on grounds of traffic. Another development in Hayle with 25 affordable homes was likewise objected to on the grounds of lack of services and over-development. Until we deal with these objections and the entitlement of the second home class the misery will endure.