Residents of Braemar in Aberdeenshire are alarmed. They are alarmed because their village is dying. Braemar’s predicament is not an isolated one. Up and down the country, especially its most popular and most beautiful bits, are becoming ghost villages because of the mushrooming of second homes within their communities.
Just what is the problem? While there have been stirrings in Braemar for years it with the closure of a Braemar fixture, the long-established local shop that brought its predicament once again to public notice. And its not just the shop but the ambulance, the registrar, even the snow plough, gritter and snowblower – all gone – and we are talking about Braemar in the Cairngorms National Park.
Whatever ultimately led to the shop’s closure, services and businesses have been steadily disappearing from around the area and you only need to wander around Braemar to see why. Holiday homes – mostly shut up and abandoned for large parts of the year.
Paradoxically when job losses are hitting the headlines elsewhere, Braemar has a surfeit of jobs and too few permanent residents to do them.
In Argyll last year there were questions over the negative impact of second homes there. Second homes which lie empty most of the year. Second home owners who contribute very little to the communities they choose to buy into. Fewer year-round residents present reasons to local authorities for the withdrawal of public services.
The Argyll debate identified 5 categories of second home owners:
- property speculators who buy to sell on
- property developers from outside the area who buy to rent– perhaps owning several houses
- property developers from within the area who restore or buy to rent – perhaps owning several houses
- owners who retain their second home for private use only
- succeeding generations retaining a family home for themselves and their children to use on weekends and holidays
There were positives identified associated with second homes:
- Retained family homes by economic migrants can sustain personal and cultural connections at weekend and holiday visits
- The availability of rentable holiday homes lets Scots as well as visitors stay in areas long enough to get to know something about them and may encourage a percentage of repeat visits, new visits from word of mouth recommendation and visits to new parts of Scotland
- The attraction of authentic rural buildings for restoration or conversion, often as second homes, arguably stems ruination and increases the national housing stock
There were negatives identified with second homes:
- They boost property prices which may price houses beyond the means of local people
- High prices can deny local young people local property homes and so fuel economic migration
- Areas of the country are ghost villages out of season, empty and largely unvisited but still requiring local services to be maintained at levels suitable for the nominal population.
In the same piece was a reference to Stoer near Lochinver in Sutherland.
‘ The entire Stoer headland bore all the appearance of a thriving township – neat, well maintained white cottages with spick window boxes and tidy gardens. But it was all ‘lights on, nobody home’. The clue was the absolute lack of clutter. These weren’t homes. They were pods for transients. There was no need for anything beyond the functional minimum and no chance for accumulations, because no one lived in any of them. They were all holiday homes. Being there out of season was like visiting a communal Marie Celeste – a fully surreal experience.
One was different. Out on the headland was a cottage that sprawled a bit, with the odd outhouse, not particular well maintained, an air of faintly resisted dereliction but obviously still used for something. And there was a wreck of an old van and an engine lying around. This was authentic and this was real, lived in year round.’
There are those who think that the scourge of second homes can be tackled by adjusting Council Tax on additional housing. In Scotland local authorities have some discretion over the application of Council Tax but surely for people who can afford a second home, or multiple properties, then a pound or two either way on their Council Tax is never going to make the difference between them choosing to buy or not.
COSLA’s Rural Affairs Executive Group recognised the importance of the availability of ‘good quality sustainable and affordable housing for all’ and the particular difficulties facing rural areas over the incursion of holiday homes but there is a distinct lack of urgency in the language both of COSLA and the Scottish Government. A consultation on the matter began in 2002 . http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2002/11/15844/14106
In August 2004, the then Finance Minister, Andy Kerr said: “Second home owners contribute strongly to local communities in many areas. But second homes and properties which have been left vacant over a number of years can cause problems for local areas, including limiting the supply of affordable housing for local people.”
“After careful consideration of the responses to our consultation on this complex issue, we have decided local authorities should have the power to vary the council tax discount on second homes and long-term empty properties within their area by between 50 per cent and 10 per cent. All additional income raised will be retained locally and used to provide new-built affordable social housing in areas determined by councils.”
Well frankly tax is NOT the issue.
In 2003, Paul Kelbie wrote in the Independent :
‘Second-home owners may mean no harm, but in more and more of Britain’s desirable villages and country towns they are like cuckoos in the nest, forcing the original inhabitants out. But now a Scottish council is taking tough action to keep them in check.’
‘Braemar in Aberdeenshire, a village nestling in the shadow of the Cairngorm mountain range, which is the jewel in the crown of Royal Deeside, may be declared Britain’s first “pressured area” in housing terms. So many properties are being sold to outsiders that local people cannot afford homes, and the right-to-buy of local council tenants may be suspended.’
2003 remember and now the village has literally shut up shop and most everything else.
Kelbie refers to ‘visitors’ being willing to pay a ‘king’s ransom’ for houses within the Cairngorms National Park and in rural villages where jobs are low income ones. Naturally while jobs may be available in a village, and this is true in Braemar, people cannot take them as they cannot afford to live in the area when competing for property against wealthy non-residents.
Braemar and the like fall under Pressured Area Status which emerged in The Modernised Right to Buy legislation of 2002. There were more reports in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 –blah, blah, blah.
Pressured Area Status allows local authorities to suspend the right-to-buy of tenants thereby curbing their ability to buy homes at subsidised prices and sell them on for large profits.
But of course we are not talking about areas where there are large numbers of council houses. Ghost villages are the result of the sale of private housing to people who may occupy them occasionally, may rent them to other holidaymakers, or may just own them and seldom visit. How on earth does that help a community remain viable?
We are all familiar with new build areas which must designate a percentage of the properties as affordable. However, we also know that builders and developers get over this by special arrangements with local authorities – throw in a pond, a park, whatever, in exchange for fewer or no affordable houses at all. But again this is new build. What about existing property in villages?
Braemar is suffering from its huge popularity with tourists. Outside of Scotland the situation is similar and people are rightly angry.
On the Isle of Wight some 4,000 second homes left empty for large chunks of the year leaving too few people using and paying for services have led to the closure of swimming pools, public toilets, post offices and pubs and so on. The story is the same. The impact continues into local schools and transport.
What happens to people whose roots belong in such an affected area or people who wish to set up their permanent residency in them? With sky-high prices and disappearing services makes this proposition much more unlikely. In time places such as Braemar will become tourist dormitories with no proper services which won’t matter to the second-homers who will drive in with their car boots stuffed with groceries bought elsewhere and who do not rely on services for their few days of residency. They won’t care there is no village school and children will have to travel long distances daily. Nor will they care that the local bus has been withdrawn.
Just how do the local people, especially older local residents cope once their shops and buses disappear? Your guess is as good as mine.
Greed and self-indulgence cannot be separated entirely from second home ownership. China’s growing affluence has seen the emergence of the phenomenon, if slightly different from here. It is against the law for a couple to own more than one house but well-off Chinese are divorcing (albeit temporarily) to circumvent the law aimed at preventing property speculation. Chinese
But back in Braemar they might be looking to David Cameron to help ease the situation after all he has been hitting out at banks and building societies over their reluctance to lend to prospective home owners: ‘The housing market has become very stuck and we’ve got to get it moving again.’
So should prospective home owners who want to settle permanently in Braemar be encouraged? There are currently five properties for sale in Braemar ranging in prices around £200 000 to £350 000. There are no properties available for long-term tenants. There is a plot of land suitable for building a bungalow – the asking price is a £110 000 – for the land – house building naturally to be added to this.
There are plenty holiday lets however. See for yourself – key in Braemar holiday homes or similar into your browser and you will be rewarded with a wonderful range of pricey properties in ‘Royal Deeside’ ranging from £275 per week for an apartment which sleeps two to a mighty £1271 per week for a property that takes 8.
Rents far too steep for any long-term let – not that their owners would consider that.
So the exploitation of village after village up and down the country goes on by the greedy and uninterested second home owners who put themselves before any good to the communities they suck dry.
It would be good to see the Scottish Government do something to stem this new clearance from the land – to show we do learn from history – but, well, that’s not going to happen, I’m sure you’ll agree. Frankly, no one seems that interested.