Sunday, 21 April 2013

"Welcome to Lake Districtland"

When many people visit the Lake District they wander around the local villages imagining what it might be like to live here.  They stop and gaze into the window of the local estate agent to see what property prices are like and what they could maybe afford.  They imagine an idyllic life; dropping the kids off at the local village school, chatting to the newsagent as they pick up their paper and passing the time of day with their neighbours when they meet them in the street.  But often this is far from the reality.

The massive rise in second home ownership means that out of season many villages become soulless ghost towns.  Services that require year round demand suffer and close as a result: schools, post offices, shops, bus services etc.  And people who were born and raised in the area simply can't afford to stay and raise their own families in the villages where they themselves grew up.

How bad is the problem? In Elterwater second homes & holiday lets account for 80% of properties in the village, just under 70% of homes in Skelwith Bridge are second homes and in Coniston 50% of all residences are now second homes.  (Information taken from Westmorland Gazette) In the summer months these places are thriving centres of activity but in the winter they are deserted with what few residents remain being surrounded by cold, empty houses. We did our house hunting during January 2011 and it very quickly became apparent which places still had a solid community and which had become little more than holiday villages.

Tourists are the lifeblood of the region and without them what little employment exists in the area would vanish altogether, but we need to find a way to balance the demand for holiday lets with the needs of the local community. One local businessman and holiday home owner quite rightly argues that he provides a lot of employment for local people by way of the trades; housekeepers, window cleaners, gardeners etc.  But the truth is all of those are lowly paid professions and it's unlikely that many of those employees will earn a sufficient salary to be able to afford to buy a property anywhere near to where they're working; the average person on a cleaners wage won't be in a position to outbid a millionaire property developer next time a tiny stone cottage comes onto the market.  

There's a marked difference in property prices as soon as you set foot inside the National Park and the pattern that's emerging is that local people employed to support the tourist industry can only afford to live in the towns around the outside of the park: Kendal, Penrith etc.  Granted there are a number of homes in the region available at a lower price for those who live and work in the area, but this is a tiny proportion of the overall housing available and doesn't even begin to address the demand.  So what's the problem with people having to commute?  Millions do it every day in London.  True, but rural communities simply don't enjoy the same transportation infrastructure as the south east meaning car ownership is pretty much essential; an additional expense on an already tight wage.
Thirlmere - previously the site of Wythborn village.

And anyway, so what if holiday homes make up 80% of Elterwater?  Well the problem is we're losing (already lost!) an entire community.  In 1879 and 1929 when the proposals were made to flood Thirlmere and Haweswater respectively, there was outcry and opposition as it would mean destroying a local community; but isn't that exactly what's happening now?  A community isn't the bricks and mortar, it's the people and without the local communities some villages are in very real danger of becoming little more than a Butlins style holiday park.  

People fight to protect the habitats of different animals around the globe, but what about the habitat of the rural English village?  The reality is that the government has said it has no plans to limit second home ownership or occupation so is it time to give in gracefully, accept that change happens and watch as Lake Districtland evolves - or does the revolution start here?