It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank Tim Farron for securing this important debate.
I feel like a stuck record for raising the issue of second homes in North Devon again. My constituency is not just rural but coastal, and many of the issues described by hon. Members are exacerbated many times over on the coast, where we have only the sea to draw on for extra residents or houses. Therefore, down the south-west peninsula, in both Devon and Cornwall, MPs have been highlighting this issue ever since I was elected. Although the pandemic has seen a perfect storm, resulting in a rush to purchase second homes in beautiful locations or to convert properties to short-term holiday lets, it is not a new problem. I was contacted during the 2019 general election campaign by the Croyde Area Residents Association, which was concerned even then that second homes accounted for 64% of properties in the stunning surf village of Croyde.
The issues around second homes are well documented with regards to a shortage of affordable properties for local residents. In the past year of the pandemic, we have also seen many evictions of local residents who have rented their homes for many years, so that owners can convert their properties to short-term holiday lets. North Devon has always welcomed second-homers and those visiting our beautiful coast in short-term holiday lets, but what we are now seeing is unsustainable, and we need action to address the problem before we become a complete ghost coast.
Like me, North Devon Council has written numerous times to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and now to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on this matter. In its most recent letter, North Devon Council detailed the following concerns about the critical situation facing our housing market. Average house prices in North Devon have increased by 22.5% in the past 12 months—the second-highest rise in England. There has been a 67% reduction in listings for permanent rental properties in 12 months—the highest reduction in the south-west, and the fourth highest nationally. There has been a 33% increase in the number of people on the housing register in 12 months, a 21% increase in the number of dwellings registered for business rates for holiday lets over 24 months, and a 7.5% increase in the number of second homes in just 12 months.
The number of properties advertised for permanent rental via Rightmove, compared with those available for Airbnb, really highlights the issue. Many of us had hoped the problem would have passed by the end of the summer, but at the start of November in Barnstaple, the main town in my constituency, there were 126 Airbnbs and two private rentals. In Ilfracombe, there were over 300 Airbnbs and three private rentals. In Lynton, there were 104 Airbnbs. In Woolacombe, there were 196 Airbnbs but not a single private rental on Rightmove.
The council’s housing staff are now dealing with a huge increase in the number of people presenting as homeless, and they have also seen a major shift in the type of people asking for assistance. These people are homeless simply because they are forced to present as such, as they have been evicted by landlords who wish to convert their properties from private residential use to short-term holiday use. Given the numbers I have mentioned, it is impossible for them to find alternative accommodation on the open market. I want to take this opportunity to thank the housing team at North Devon Council for their tireless work in trying to help families who find themselves in an incredibly difficult and stressful situation through no fault of their own.
Although tourism is a major part of the North Devon economy, the lack of housing available for permanent residential use is starting to have a major impact on the lives of far too many residents, as well as on local businesses and public services such as health and education, which are struggling to recruit because of the lack of housing and which are also suffering from existing staff leaving the area because of eviction and the lack of affordable housing. Major employers in North Devon have indicated that the lack of available housing is now being considered when deciding whether to invest in the area. Local schools and colleges, and the health service, cannot recruit quality staff because of the lack of housing. Even our much-loved North Devon District Hospital is struggling to find accommodation for just the handful of new students that started there this year.
The recent shift from permanent residential to holiday use, and the substantial increase in house prices, means not only that a permanent home is out of reach for many people living and working in the area. Public attitudes to new house building have also changed. Virtually every housing scheme in North Devon, particularly the larger ones, is meeting substantial opposition from the community, with many objectors citing fears that the properties will become second homes or holiday lets, and that they will invariably be unaffordable for local residents. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that viability challenges raised by developers mean that on average only around 20% of new homes built in North Devon are affordable, by any definition.
A proliferation of short-term holiday lets in an area not only changes the character of a neighbourhood but can also increase antisocial behaviour and noise nuisance, primarily because there is so little regulation of short-term holiday lets. We are already starting to see that, with an increase in the number of complaints received by the council relating to noise, antisocial behaviour, parties, hot tubs and so on.
I recognise that any intervention in the housing market has a huge risk of unintended consequences and potential increases in prices in some sectors, but I very much hope that some steps can be taken to level the playing field between the short-term and the long-term rental markets through the various current tax inequalities, to ensure that the short-term holiday let market is better regulated and that a change of use is required to convert properties from primary residence to holiday lets. It seems bizarre that some of the holiday lets in my constituency have to have a change of use to become a long-term rental, but the situation is not the same the other way round. Restrictions of just 10 months’ occupancy are imposed by local councils for good reasons at the time they were imposed, but those restrictions are now not being reversed. Support is needed for small district councils to enable them to confidently take those steps, if they are able.
We also need to take steps to bring back into occupation derelict properties that have been left empty for months or years. Councils have powers, but the processes are slow and expensive, and the proximity of my own home to derelict houses suggests such powers are not being readily acted upon.
Most people dream of owning their own home, and I fully support the Government’s ambition to help people to achieve that dream. To do that in places such as North Devon, we need to find a solution for increasing the supply of affordable housing and we need to review the guidance and tests in place to assess the viability of developments, to ensure that the level of affordable housing provided is not affected by issues such as an unreasonably high valuation placed on the land.
Our councils need more control and flexibility in access to funding to build affordable homes and to protect them for occupancy by local residents, so that they are available to future generations. New homes need to be available to those who want to live in these rural and coastal constituencies. There are innovative schemes such as rent to buy from companies such as Rentplus, community land trusts for small rural communities need to be more accessible to small planning authorities, and more needs to be done so that our local plans really do reflect the needs of our local communities.
Like many of my constituents, I would like the lights over Christmas to be on in my neighbours’ houses, but far too many closes like mine are deserted through the winter. I very much hope that the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has some plans, blue sky or otherwise. During the pandemic, this Government showed that we can act quickly when we need to. The time is now to address the imbalances in the housing market, before the lights go out for good and the whole of the North Devon coast becomes a winter ghost town.