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Rise up, Cornwall, against London’s SUV drivers lusting for a second home

·5-min read

As the longer-term psychological and social impacts of Covid begin to reveal themselves, one substantial group is already displaying a mental shift that could inflict lasting damage if only, mercifully, on other people. The pandemic did not merely change this demographic, it inspired in its members an identical quest: they must own property in Cornwall.

With infections subsiding, the fixation has only intensified: searches for property in Cornwall, at 5m in a month, have overtaken those for London. Estate agents struggle with the demand, maybe 60 inquiries per house, with places bought unseen, rival bids, the rental market also soaring beyond local means and ostensibly unalluring properties sold in hours or less. A local headline announces: “Port Isaac bungalow sells in just five minutes as Cornwall housing madness continues.” A bigger, £4.5m house in Polzeath, no matter that its beach is indelibly associated with a glistening David Cameron, secured an offer from buyers who’d only seen it online.

The competition is all the more striking given a parallel series of news stories depicting heightened local resistance to the arrival, quite likely in an outsize SUV, of yet more price-inflating and largely absentee second-home owners. Before that, Mark Jenkin’s acclaimed 2019 film, Bait, exploring tensions in a Cornish coastal community, might have generated in some buyers an awareness of what their new acquisition could permanently displace. Perhaps local disquiet is a small price for convenient beach access from a “lock up and leave”, as estate agents call properties whose main message to neighbours is, however, fuck off and die.

In lockdown, the arrival of wealthy plague-dodgers prompted open hostility and a Facebook group called “You Shouldn’t Be Here”. A defiant Gordon Ramsay was noted in his Land Rover Defender (“tough, capable, unstoppable”). More recently, a Cornish resident told the Guardian about “people who have moved in with loads of money who think they own everything”. A sign in Malpas: “Respect Malpas and double yellow lines. Park legally and properly. If not, bugger off.” In St Agnes: “No more second homes, our village is dying!!” Steve Ridholls reportedly put that up after a “cocksure” visitor came to view next door. “I saw him looking and thought, ‘you greedy bastard’, I bet it wouldn’t even be his primary residence.” In short, mutinous Cornwall residents are becoming a reproach, perhaps a model, to more passive witnesses to limitless countrywide gentrification and the associated posturing. It’s not only around Falmouth and Rock that the unspeakable and seemingly unembarrassable like to advertise their arrival: a recent survey confirmed that 75% of SUV owners do not live in unpredictable terrain but are affluent city dwellers and, in particular, residents of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham.

As for the ongoing local displacement and escalating prices that accompany raging second home fever, that pattern, too, is replicated everywhere adequately picturesque: if a blameless Cornwall neighbourhood woke one day to the spectacle of David Cameron, well, villagers in Bruton in Somerset have discovered they now live, like some similarly blessed regions of Suffolk and Oxfordshire, in rural Notting Hill. “This is a microcosm of the poshest parts of London transported to one of the most beautiful parts of the country,” the Guardian learned, after George Osborne bought in.

Whether Cornwall communities are less cooperative or simply more at risk, their indignation underlines how elsewhere, second home acquisition, even amid acute housing shortages, has not merely escaped the condemnation visited on other offences against bucolic harmony but also any fiscal penalties commensurate with the social costs. Lockdown-driven visitors to beauty spots were disparaged for ignorant tombstoning, for mess, for all sorts of temporary nuisance to the point of these clueless townies being offered a “refreshed” countryside code instructing them to “share the space” and act nice. Be sure, for instance, to say hello to Cameron if you spot him trailing bodyguards in north Cornwall or, since one second-home colony never seems to be enough, catching up with rustic investment news in Chipping Norton.

In contrast, the irreversible legacy of incomers’ housing deals, some made with all the careful consideration of choices off a tasting menu, is tolerated by a largely second home-favourable press given to extensive coverage of the acquisition and hilariously eventful maintenance of its contributors’ supplementary properties. Still more usefully, governments composed of second home-owners have been unfailingly loyal. Earlier, Rishi Sunak actively subsidised holiday-home buyers by reducing stamp duty; when mass tourism and hospitality closed down, the “Stanley Johnson loophole” ministered to private second-home owners for whom separation from their properties would be unendurable. New absentee owners may find, as a scenic investment bonus, that their council tax is actually less than for those full-time locals yet to be herded humanely out.

That so few affected residents or about-to-be-exiles have so far organised around, say, a hypothecated, deterrently astronomical council tax – or even Cornwall-style sign-writing – is harder to comprehend. Unless it’s the “perennial and unfailing kindness of the poor to the rich”, noted by GK Chesterton, quoted in Ferdinand Mount’s Mind the Gap. Maybe it helps that darkened cottages in denatured villages, unlike status-signalling vehicles or illegally erected extensions or skateboard parks, are less immediately identifiable as egregiously antisocial. Maybe, as with the normalisation of massive SUVs in narrow, already polluted London streets, resistance just comes to feel pointless.

There is always, too, that reluctance to be targeted with the Daily Mail’s all-purpose retort, the “politics of envy”, even if that charge more routinely testifies to the accuser’s incomprehension that anyone, other than a mad puritanical loser, could complain of something (say, grotesquely inflated rents and house prices in economically deprived areas) on principle. But as some Manchester United fans decided last week of their own plutocrat problem, “there’s only so much passive resistance can do”. And the alternative is Cornwall.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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