Second-homes related housing pressures are reaching a critical point in some parts of Wales, but evidence from elsewhere shows the problems can be alleviated if the right approaches are taken.

As reported previously in The National, campaigners in some parts of Wales say the rise in second homes and holiday lets is driving up property prices and eating into the housing stock, forcing locals out of their communities and making local home ownership next to impossible for younger, first-time buyers.

Pressures are being felt most acutely in picturesque coastal, rural areas. In some Gwynedd villages, at least one-in-five houses is a second-home or holiday let (46 per cent in Abersoch, 43 per cent in Aberdyfi, 31 per cent in Aberdaron); while the case of northern Pembrokeshire village Cwm-yr-Eglwys – where just two of the 50 properties have permanent residents – is well-documented.

Rhys Tudur is a resident and town councillor in Nefyn, where 22 per cent of properties are either second homes or holiday lets. Local residents have mobilised in opposition to what they see as a direct threat to their communities, under the banner ‘Hawl i Fyw Adra’ (the right to live at home).

“We feel our communities are being lost forever,” Tudur told The National. “Perhaps we’ll never see our communities being living ever again. They’re being dismantled because of a lack of regulations.”

Research shows the rise of second homes is not confined to coastal villages – there are more than 3,000 such properties in Cardiff and some 2,000 in Swansea – but what compounds the issue in those north-western villages are the implications for the Welsh language.

These are Welsh-speaking communities where the language evolves and is enriched, and, as Tudur described it, the second-homes crisis is as much about culture as it is housing.

“The identity of villages is being swept away – it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “Heritage just vanishes, and linguistic geography is being changed to a substantial degree.”

Housing is a devolved responsibility, and the Welsh Government has pledged to respond to the crisis, announcing a ‘three-pronged’ strategy this month that would go beyond the increased council tax levy powers it brought in last year.

“The urgency and gravity of this situation calls for further intervention, which means real and ambitious actions are delivered at pace, to inject fairness back into the housing system,” minister Julie James said at the launch.

The approach will take recommendations from by Swansea University academic Dr Simon Brooks, who in March published a comprehensive report on the nation’s second-home pressures. But the government’s plans are in their infancy, and are yet to go out for consultation, meaning it may be some time before a ‘hawl i fyw adra’ is secured.

READ MORE:

There are lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, however. Second-homes pressures are not unique to Wales, and decision-makers in other hotspot areas have turned to tighter regulations to control the market and secure housing for locals.

The old fishing port of St Ives, in Cornwall, is perhaps the best-known example of this, with the local council having banned any newly-built properties in the area from being used as a second home. That ban was introduced in 2016 after winning local support in a referendum – before the ban, one-in-four properties in St Ives was not a permanent residence.

The approach has become a blueprint for other areas, too. Councillors in nearby Padstow have proposed a similar ‘neighbourhood planning’ solution to second homes, while on the Isle of Wight the council hasn’t ruled out bringing in restrictions on who can buy new-builds. In some parts of Wales, too – including second-homes hotspots – there exist Local Market Housing policies that prevent new-builds being used as second homes.

Dr Brooks found some drawbacks to the St Ives model: it could discourage housebuilders from developing new housing projects in an area, and it may end up creating two housing markets – one for locals and one for second-home buyers. By limiting the ban to new-builds, it may not cover the types of housing most sought as second homes, and it may simply move locals’ housing pressures onto the existing stock.

Tudur said the Welsh Government should look at St Ives as a starting point, rather than an end goal. He advocates regulations that would ban anyone from buying a second-home in a hotspot area if they were not local. This ban would cover new-builds and existing properties, he said, and could be enforced as part of the house-buying process. Switzerland has used such laws to curtail second-home ownership in some of its own hotspots.

But the notion of banning certain people from living in a place could throw up tricky legal questions. St Ives fought, and won, a legal case over its policy; and any extension of a ban – to cover all properties – could theoretically raise fresh concerns over human rights. Conversely, supporters of a ban could argue the rights of locals to protect the Welsh language are greater than those of second-home owners.

READ MORE:

Another possible tool at the government’s disposal is taxation, and although local authorities in Wales have powers to levy increased council tax on second homes, other parts of the world have brought in new types of tax to try and tackle housing pressures. In Vancouver, on the western coast of Canada, the city introduced an Empty Homes Tax in 2016, charging a one per cent levy on all properties that were not principal residences or stood empty for more than six months of the year.

Since then, the number of vacant homes has fallen steadily, while more than 7,000 properties have become occupied, either by permanent owners or tenancy holders. The tax has proved popular, too – the city mayor won re-election on a pledge to raise the levy, which now stands at three per cent; and the policy has raised £35.3million, which the city invests in community housing projects.

Boosting Wales’ existing housing stock could also alleviate pressures on hotspot communities, and this is one of the ‘prongs’ of the government’s strategy. But Tudur said people affected by the crisis couldn’t wait years for more houses to be built.

“We can never get out of the crisis by building houses – it will never happen soon enough, and there’s no guarantee [the new housing will be ringfenced] for locals,” he said. “Nobody wants overdevelopment of the countryside. It’s not a golden bullet. But if you restrict properties from being second homes then you won’t need to build houses.”

There are also questions over the loss of existing housing stock to holiday accommodation. The Welsh Local Government Association said it would like to see councils given powers to change planning rules, meaning any conversion of a home into a holiday let would need a change-of-use planning permission application. Any existing holiday accommodation should have to follow a new mandatory licensing system, so that councils can control the number of homes in an area that are being converted to lucrative, short-stay holiday lets.

Taxation, regulation, housebuilding, reinvestment into communities: these are the chief tools at government’s disposal if it is to get to grips with the matter. For Dr Bob Smith, honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning, the correct approach will be to let local decision-makers choose the approach that best fits their regions.

“There is a role for different policies… but the application and balance of specific policies should be a matter for individual local authorities,” he said. “What may work in some contexts may not be successful elsewhere.”

This will mean getting better data at a local-level, so that councils can make the right decisions for each community, and any measures brought in will have to have their impacts evaluated.

A time-consuming process, and a problem with no simple solutions. But for the communities at the heart of the crisis, time is one thing they feel is not on their side.

“If there’s any delay, the future of Welsh-speaking communities will be lost forever,” Tudur said. “Nothing can recover that.”

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.