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Homes Under The Hammer: Inside Devon's Housing Crisis

The proliferation of second homes, holiday lets and Airbnb's in Devon, one of England's most popular beauty spots, has left locals unable to find housing | Illustration by Tracy Worrall

7 min read

The tranquil Devon countryside has long been a holiday maker’s dream. Yet the explosion in tourist accommodation and second homes during Covid has seen property prices skyrocket to more than 14 times the average local salary. Georgina Bailey reports.

When Emma Hookway was served with a section 21 notice evicting her this June, she did not know what she was about to face. “When you grow up in north Devon, you accept that you can’t afford to buy [property] unless you’ve got a handout from parents or you’re fortunate enough to have a [good] career. Generally, it is just not doable with the lower wages down here," she says.

Devon is often thought of as an idyllic area of natural beauty. However, Hookway is one of the thousands of people who has struggled to find a suitable home in the tourist hotspot since the summer, when the end of the eviction moratorium came up against the increasing demand for “staycation” accommodation during the pandemic. While home-grown holiday destinations have faced increasing housing costs for years, locals say the problem has now reached crisis point.

Hookway, 41, had spent the past few years renting a four-bedroom house in Braunton, a village of around 8,000 near the coast. Her two oldest sons, 21 and 17, had recently moved out; her youngest was six. Renting in the area is expensive in comparison to wages, limiting her ability to save.

Hookway had never struggled to find somewhere suitable for her family before, however this time, there were markedly fewer homes available for private rent. The few that came onto the market were snapped up within hours of being advertised. North Devon District Council told her there were no council homes available, and she should stay in her current residence until her landlady bought a court order against her – something that would have impeded her ability to rent privately in the future. The nearest temporary accommodation was an hour away from her son’s school – he burst into tears after hearing a story on the radio about a man in Swansea being forced to set up a tent on the dunes to sleep in after being evicted, fearing the same thing would happen to them. 

A couple she knows were told to sleep in their car or pay for a hotel. A Facebook group Hookway started for people struggling with housing in north Devon had 600 members in two days – it now has more than 2,000.

Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group on Devon County Council, says the crisis is caused by a trio of Covid pressures: wealthy Londoners who are now able to work primarily from home have moved down to enjoy the beauty of the south west, driving up property prices by up to 22 per cent in a year according to the ONS; an increasing number of homes being flipped from primary residences (owner-occupier or rented) to more profitable holiday homes to take advantage of the staycation trend; and the proliferation of Airbnb removing homes from the private rented sector. 

Almost every property that comes up sells as a holiday let

While the whole county is suffering, the housing situation in north Devon is particularly severe. In the seaside town of Ilfracombe (population 11,509) there were only four homes available for private rent at the time of writing, compared to 326 Airbnbs. In the popular surfing village of Croyde (population 650), research by the local resident’s association showed 57 per cent of homes did not have a permanent occupant; there were streets with only one resident over the winter months. Despite the local average salary being around £24,000, the parish council say there is little on the property market for under £350,000 across Georgeham, the parish containing Croyde. Recent listings in Croyde show a two-bedroom bungalow with an asking price of £750,000; four-bedroom homes often sell for as much as £1.3m. 

Tina Luxton moved to the area four years ago and now helps to run the Community Land Trust in Croyde, which hopes to build social housing to meet local needs. “Almost every property that comes up sells as a holiday let. Bungalows are being converted into much larger properties to provide holiday accommodation, and that is moving the bar all the time. [For] any local people or people returning to the area to be near family, suddenly properties that might have been affordable and within their price range are being put out of it. What we’ve seen is a massive reduction in [one bed or two bed] size accommodation, so what might have been a first-time home for somebody no longer exists in that format,” she says.

When new homes are built, they often do not go to locals. More than 70 new homes have been granted planning permission in Croyde in the last few years; Jane Young of the Croyde Area Resident’s Association says she only knows of one that was designated as affordable, and four that were designated to meet local need. Two homes that were existing social housing in the village were sold off in the same time period. The rest were bought as holiday lets or second homes, Young says. 

Tourism has been a major part of the area’s economy since the post-war period, and locals want to maintain that. However, many feel the balance between accommodating tourists and the year-round community has tipped too far in the wrong direction; there is a risk of “killing the golden goose” by pushing the locals and younger families who work in the industry out of the area, and over-building destroying the natural beauty, says Maggie Beaumont, Georgeham Parish Council chair. Despite the staycation boom this summer, some pubs and restaurants had to shut due to a lack of staff, and the local lifeguards have struggled to recruit too, she says.

The problems go beyond staffing for the tourism and hospitality sector. Local hospitals are also reporting staff shortages as healthcare workers cannot afford to move to the area. Devon County Council increased pay in a bid to attract more children’s social care workers, but it didn’t work, says Hannaford. Meanwhile, the shortage of teaching assistants meant that County Hall workers were sent into schools to keep them open, and some waste collections had to be repeatedly paused due to a lack of staff.

You can’t keep it is as it is. Things have to change

The situation is complex, and so are the solutions, involving every level of government. The housing crisis is now one of the main issues that MPs across the south west work on, and the concerns are shared by MPs and councils in areas as far away as Cumbria and East Anglia. After prolonged campaigning from MPs, last week the government announced that it will close a loophole in council tax regulations, stopping homeowners who leave properties empty while pretending to let them to holidaymakers from qualifying from business rates relief. Selaine Saxby, North Devon’s MP, told The House she has received assurances that ministers are also looking at allowing councils to charge more in council tax for different types of property.

Devon County Council passed a motion in Hannaford’s name at the end of last year to spend council money securing housing for key workers, piloting in north Devon; while he concedes it isn’t a perfect solution, Hannaford is even interested exploring the prospect of the council buying hotels to temporarily house key workers. 

And in Georgeham, residents voted at the end of last year for a neighbourhood plan that would embed the policy of “primary residence” into future planning decisions: all new homes would have to be designated for people who intended to live there full time, and existing homes would not be able to be converted into holiday lets unless they met a need not already provided in the parish. Those who have led the charge locally admit the crisis is already so severe, there is an element of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

“It’s not set in stone,” says Young. “But it does give breathing space to work out where we, as a community, think we should be going next. Because you can’t keep it is as it is. Things have to change.” 

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