Cornwall’s housing crisis – “a perfect storm”     

by Ann Higgins

No apologies for this article not having a specifically European slant but we reckon that the housing crisis that is currently facing Cornwall is just too big to ignore with rising house prices pricing locals out of the market and rising rents coupled with a lack of rental properties affecting the rental market too. In a recent report shown on ITV. Cornwall Councillor and housing portfolio holder Chris Monkton said that lots of people have been moving to the county during the pandemic, and many rental owners have been selling to take advantage of high house prices.

That, he says, has led to an increased shortage of homes to rent or buy, with 16,000 people looking for rental homes through the council’s Home Choice programme (and an unknown number looking privately or trying to buy) but just 41 properties listed on the site. “It’s most definitely a crisis due to varying factors. It’s like a perfect storm, a lot of people want to visit Cornwall now and that’s pushed up rental prices.”

The lack of affordable accommodation has had a knock-on effect on the ability of local people to stay in the area to work and raise their families, even when they can get a job locally, because they can’t find anywhere to live. This has been recognised by the local NHS which stated in a recent briefing that “according to figures from Visit Cornwall, up to 210,000 people a day are visiting Cornwall this summer, an increase of 15% on previous years as a result of vaccine confidence and uncertainty over foreign holidays.

The boom in staycations means demand for property in Cornwall is very high with people converting long term rentals to Airbnbs, making people homeless and driving up prices to a point where they are unaffordable to people on even decent wages, which exacerbates our recruitment challenges. The extra summer traffic also adds to congestion on our roads. As a result, it takes longer for staff working in the community to visit people at home as well as increasing the demand on health services.”

The irony is that there are almost as many empty homes in Cornwall as there are people registered with the council as needing somewhere to rent, with the Ministry of Housing figures showing that Cornwall has a total of 16,713 homes out of regular use, the highest of any LA in the country, accounting for one in every 16 properties. Furthermore over three-quarters of these are second homes with over 3,000 being classed as long term empty (ie left vacant for more than 6 months) a figure which has increased from 2,840 in the last 12 months. Though national legislation allows councils to give a discount of up to 50% of Council Tax to owners of second homes, Cornwall Council requires the full amount to be paid and where a property has been empty for two years or more a sliding scale of increases in Council tax are payable. However, due to a loophole in the business rates system, those who let out a property for 140 days of the year or more can register for business rates instead of Council tax and so long as the rateable value is under £15,000, they will pay little or nothing as a “small business”, thus providing an extra incentive for those considering buying a “holiday home” that they can let out for part of the year. It has been estimated that this is costing councils in the SW of England £16 million a year in lost revenue.

It is likely however that there are many more people whose need for housing is hidden because they are living with friends, in caravans or increasingly remaining or returning to live with parents well into their late 20s and 30s, at a time when they should be able to strike out on their own. This situation is not sustainable, yet the likelihood is that there will be little relief in the short to medium term whilst house prices in Cornwall continue to rise. According to Plumplot, in the 12 months from July 2020 to June 2021 house prices in Cornwall rose 17%, with the average cost of a property now being over £300,000. Even permanent rentals can be precarious as most are assured shorthold tenancies which after the first 6-12 month period permit either side to terminate the contract on 1-2 months’ notice and much more money can be made from letting to tourists either in the conventional way or through Airbnb.

Penzance councillor Tim Dwelly has drawn up a list of eight actions which he intended to put forward as a motion at the Cornwall Council meeting in July with the hope that it would get all-party support to tackle the housing emergency which he wants the council to declare. However, it was ruled as inadmissible for the council meeting and a matter for the executive to take forward. Whether this will result in any action on the part of the council remains to be seen. Doubtless, protests like the one described elsewhere in this edition will continue if only to keep the crisis alive in the minds of the public. In the meantime, the future for those in Cornwall who are in want of a home looks bleak.

Featured image credit: Simon Godfrey on Unsplash