Choosing language carefully - the question of second homes

As we submit our response to the Welsh Government's consultation on planning legislation and policy for second homes and short-term holiday lets, John Harold, Director, Snowdonia Society, explains why it's an important issue for National Parks...

The Welsh Government is consulting on proposals that would allow local planning authorities to introduce a requirement for planning permission when turning a permanent dwelling into a second home or holiday let.

There would be new use classes for ‘Primary Homes’ , ‘Secondary Homes’ and ‘Short-term Holiday Lets’, based on the number of days dwellinghouses are occupied, and by whom. Planning permission will not be automatically required - the planning authority will be able to require it through a geographically defined Article 4 Direction.

Eryri - heartland of the Welsh language

The key for us is the impact of housing pressures, and the proposed solutions, on the Welsh language and the communities it serves. Eryri - known in English as Snowdonia National Park - is a heartland of the Welsh language; its linguistic and cultural heritage is a central part of the National Park’s special qualities.

For over half a century, Snowdonia Society's work has responded to the ways that people use the National Park. As an employer, we are acutely aware of housing market pressures in the local communities that are home to our (90% Welsh-speaking) staff and many of our volunteers. Thus our response is shaped by our charitable purposes and our work on the ground, as well as our role as an employer and active part of civil society. 

Sustainable communities

Second homes are prevalent in parts of Snowdonia, less so in others. Where a significant proportion of housing stock is bought by people from outside the area as a second home or let as holiday homes, this can impact on community life, services and facilities, and ultimately on the sustainability of the community. Patterns are complex and subject to change and some of the ‘hotspots’ are far from the obvious coastal locations. Local Planning Authorities have a role to play in identifying where second homes and holiday rental homes are having an impact on communities and/or language.  

Some of Eryri’s communities are significantly affected. In Beddgelert and Arthog second homes make up over 20% of the housing stock; and eight communities have in excess of 10% of their housing stock as second homes. Data show Bethesda, Llanberis and Llanfrothen as less significantly affected, but local hotspots exist within these communities. For instance, 40% of the houses in the village of Rhyd, in the Llanfrothen community are second homes. Pandemic-related work-and-lifestyle choices are likely to be acting as pressures for more second homes and holiday rental homes.

Broad support for proposals

We support the intention behind Welsh Government’s proposals. We recognise many of the pressures and impacts identified as being real and significant. Where the evidence shows that measures have potential to achieve positive change we will support them. Overall, we believe that the proposals are likely to have a net positive impact on the Welsh language in areas of Wales with high or increasing levels of second homes and/or holiday lets. We would like to see analysis of the anticipated impacts on the Welsh language of the proposed measures.

However, the complex social and economic interactions make it important to be clear about which measures are intended to tackle which issues. Unintended consequences are a significant risk.  Community cohesion will require clarity and fairness in how any measures are introduced, structured and enforced.

Helping the Welsh language to flourish

Second homes are only one of the areas which need to be addressed if the language is to survive and flourish. Alongside planning, regulation and taxation we need investment in language; part of that is supporting Welsh learners, some of whom become contributors to the life of the language.  We hope to see a joined-up approach from Welsh Government, setting out how action on second homes will be supported by wider measures to support the Welsh language and community cohesion.

An obvious example is the issue of empty homes and their impact on the availability of homes for local residents. Council tax data suggests that there are now around 25,700 empty homes across Wales compared to around 24.900 second homes. We urge Welsh Government to take further action to bring these empty homes back into use alongside new measures to address high levels of second homes and short-term holiday lets.

Ever-changing landscape

The economic and social drivers of the second home phenomenon are not static. The patterns are likely to be changing.  New measures will need to keep up with market forces, responsive to trends such as the geographical decoupling of home and workplace. This is an unprecedented change and we don’t know how far and fast it will affect rural Wales. 

A specific risk is that new measures simply displace a problem. New planning permission requirements for second homes and short-term holiday lets within specified Article 4 areas may displace current market pressures rather than reducing them. In this scenario communities outside Article 4 areas may experience new pressures. Buyers in the second home and short-term holiday let segments of the market may prove more agile than planners, resulting in a rapid escalation of pressures in areas not subject to Article 4 measures.

National Park Authorities - and local authorities with planning responsibility for AONBs – may struggle to implement some of the proposals effectively without significant additional resources. There will also be a need for a new compulsory licensing scheme for holiday homes. It is currently difficult to gather information because the holiday home market is unregulated.

Sustainable tourism

In Eryri, holiday lets are a big part of the local tourism economy in its current form. The second homes issue sit within a bigger question; is the current model of tourism either desirable or sustainable? Efforts to develop more sustainable elements of tourism are ongoing in Eryri and elsewhere. What might future visitor accommodation needs be in a sustainable tourism scenario? 

There is a strong argument for looking at the problems caused by second homes and holiday homes not as a static fixed situation but as symptoms of situation in flux. Welsh Government and society more widely need to scrutinise and help steer change in the visitor industry and destination management, taking stock by listening to a range of stakeholders and business practitioners themselves. We are and must be part of that conversation. We will need to work together for a sustainable and equitable tourism model for Wales, one which supports the Welsh Language. On this sensitive issue we need to choose our language carefully.

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