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The rural housing shortage

When it comes to the housing crisis, our attention is drawn to towns and cities. But the countryside is running out of affordable housing too, with young people and new families paying the price.  

December 09 2023, 14.14pm

“The house wasn't really big enough for five people, so I wanted to move out and have my own little space.”

22-year-old Nathan Martin lives on the family farm on the Cornwall-Devon border with his parents, grandparents, and two younger sisters. His home for the past three years is  a static caravan in the garden of his parents’ bungalow   

It’s an unconventional arrangement, but no longer uncommon for many young people due to a major shortage of affordable housing across rural communities. One cause of this shortage is the prevalence of holiday homes. In Cornwall alone, there were more than 20,000 Airbnbs listed in 2022, while the South West has the largest proportion of second homes in England. 

This isn’t just a Cornish problem though, in 2022 BBC analysis revealed that the number of holiday lets in England had grown by 40% in just three years, reducing the supply of housing available to locals and hiking up prices. According to The Countryside Charity house prices in rural areas have risen twice as fast as in urban ones in the last five years. 

While many see holiday homes as a much-needed part of the countryside’s post-pandemic recovery, they can do more harm than good. In Cornwall they’re not only reducing the supply of housing, they’re pricing young people out of house and home.   

Zoopla estimates that across the UK 42% of 18-39-year-olds have given up on buying a house, it’s a problem exacerbated in rural areas by the even greater disparity between average house prices and wages; The average price of a property in Cornwall is £340,000, which is above the UK average, while wages are well below average at less than £500 per week.

Phillip Vincent from Action with Communities in Rural England says it’s one of the organisation’s “biggest policy concerns” as it impacts communities across the country. 

“Sale and rental prices continue to outstretch local wages in many parts of the countryside forcing younger people and families out of their communities,” he explains. “Not only does this cause significant financial pressure and insecurity…but the changing demographic of some rural communities is threatening the viability of local services.”

For Nathan Martin, living in the caravan is a rite of passage – his dad originally lived there before he inherited his bungalow. Martin wanted to swap his cosy family cottage for the caravan in an attempt to gain some independence, but it was not a simple process. 

The caravan had been empty for years and Martin only had a shoestring budget. But he’s a practical man willing to give anything a go, as the renovation process showed. 

“My dad's a builder, he's a mechanic, he's a handyman, and I've learned skills from him over the years. We got the job done for about a grand. For that, the bathroom’s all plumbed in, there’s a kitchen… we were getting the cheapest of the cheap.” Nathan even bought a wood burner and put up a homemade chimney.


Nathan Martin's caravan home in his parents' garden.


“Half the stuff we already had, and the other half of the stuff I got cheap.” His bed frame is made of pallets and his surprisingly comfortable sofa was bought for £10 at auction. 

Martin’s resourcefulness is impressive, but is he bitter that it’s necessary? He lives a five-minute walk away from a caravan park where, every summer, families pull up for a countryside getaway, only to leave before the autumn chill sets in. He lives in his caravan year-round. He never even considered trying to find a flat in the local area as he knew there were virtually none available near the family farm, let alone any he could afford. 

He says the winter is probably the hardest part of living there. “As someone that's been brought up on a farm, you’re used to getting up early, getting up in the cold,” he says. “It's not too much of a hassle. But it can be quite challenging mentally because you wake up to frost on the windows, or you wake up and you take your first breath out and you can see it.”

The isolation of living so far from town takes a toll too, despite living so close to his family. 
“I’ve lived alone for three years in the caravan. It’s very, very secluded, but at the same time it’s in our family garden, so it isn’t too bad. But being on your own every night and finding something constructive to do in those last few hours before you go to sleep is very difficult.”

Living in unfavourable conditions or ‘short-term’ setups for a long time is often a reality for those who’ve been priced out. But there are others like Martin who have found creative ways to gain some independence.

The reality of being priced out

Samuel Jennings is a 21-year-old labourer from one of Cornwall’s most popular tourist hotspots, Bude. He lives in an annexe built in the garden of his parents’ house just a couple of minutes’ walk from the beach. Until he was seventeen, he shared a room with his brother, who’s four years younger than him; there weren't enough bedrooms for each of his three siblings to have their own. 

“We were first planning on moving,” he explains. “We were looking and looking for places, but it’s quite a nice location here, so we didn't want to move too far.”

“We wanted to stay as close to the town centre as possible. But, as with every house in Bude, it was really expensive and there weren’t enough options.” With a big disparity between wages and house prices, affordable five bedroom houses are hard to come by. 

The Jennings’ have lived in Bude for six generations, and Samuel’s dad has been the local postman for more than thirty years. Moving away was never an option, so the family thought outside of the box and built an annexe in their garden, complete with a kitchen and bathroom.

“It is a big change to go from sharing a bedroom to having essentially an entire house to yourself,” says Jennings.“It’s a nice step between leaving home to getting your own home, because I'm not completely independent and if I do need anything I know that I've got my parents to help me.”

But he does admit it’s not a long-term solution. “I’ve been here for about two years, and now my siblings want to move in,” he explains.“If you're not going off to university and you just want to work and save a bit of money, it’s ideal. But it’s just a stepping stone to moving out and renting your own place.”


The foundations of Samuel Jennings' miniature home.

The final result.


Regardless of whether he’s ready to move out, at the moment it’s not an option.

“It would be a struggle,” he says. “The market around here isn't right for first time buyers and people leaving home. Everything's so expensive because it's such a popular holiday destination, so the value of properties is just crazy. It's not in line with people’s earnings at all.”

Not everyone has the space,the skills, or the money to build an annexe, and many are forced to continue living with their parents into their 30s. But lots of the constraints on Samuel’s independence remain the same. Without affordable housing in the local area, he will still face the stark choice of leaving the town he’s always lived in or remaining in his parents’ garden for many years to come. 

Some locals have embraced the latest wave of second home ownership by selling their properties through estate agents in London rather than local ones to get a better price, according to Jennings.  

“I know someone who’s been doing up their house, but they spent way more money than they were supposed to and weren't able to quite finish it … so to make sure that they get as much money as possible they're not even advertising [in the town] because they know no one is going to pay what they want for it.”

Jennings’ story is not a unique one, especially in the West Country. Rebecca Smith, author of Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside says she’s heard of similar incidents. 

Wealthy city dwellers with above average incomes “are usually able to afford over the asking price and over what can be afforded around the local area. So these houses will go up and up in price, and local people, who usually don't get paid as much as people that live in the city, can't afford to live in the area.”

The South West has a particular problem here. It hosts the highest percentage of second homes anywhere in England and Wales, meaning the problem of being priced out is widespread. 

This has severe consequences for the young people who stay in the region regardless, with many forced to choose between their living standards and their independence. Some are even forced to live on the streets. Rural homelessness has increased by 40% in 5 years with the South West home to the highest rate of any region. 

Can legislation prevent pricing out?

Rebecca Smith says situations like Jennings’ and Martin’s make her sad and angry. 

“It's really difficult when you're in a situation where you want to live in an area, but you literally can't afford it,” says Smith. “House prices are so inflated, and the local landowner often rents out all of his houses for holiday cottages, not to local people. There isn't really much you can do.”

It’s a complex situation, with different nations and regions having different regulations on second homes. Smith predicts we’ll see more legislation in the future to protect locals. 

“People are definitely fighting for more regulations on second homes. In the Lake District we have a local occupancy clause which means that a certain amount of houses have to be for local people.”

The efficacy of these clauses has been questioned by some though, as they’re not widely used and don’t keep prices down very effectively. This often means that even if there is housing available to locals, they can’t afford it. 

Another option is community ownership, which allows locals to collectively buy up large areas of land. 

“In Scotland this is really common, it's been happening for about 20 years and it's great,” says Smith. “The community has a chance to buy not just a pub or a football team like in England, but hundreds or thousands of acres of land.”

Scotland is a leader in this area in other ways too, having legislated to build 11,000 affordable homes in rural and island areas by 2032, a £350 million investment requiring collaboration across local and national government, as well as the private sector.

However, Smith worries that if action isn’t taken quick enough there won’t be locals left to live in the homes set aside for them. 

“When the balance is tipped, when there's too many of them [tourists], a place is just basically a village of holidaymakers,” she adds. “There's no one left to actually clean those holiday cottages, there's no one to serve in the pubs or cook the food, something which is happening in a lot of areas at the moment. It just becomes like a big Disneyland.

“They're not part of that community. The kids won't go to school in the village, they might not go to the pubs much, they certainly won't be on the local committees. These kinds of things really make the village run. Whether you've got a lantern festival or a country show, if these things don't get organised, they simply don't run.” 

Samuel Jennings agrees with this assessment. Despite living in Bude all their lives, he doesn’t think he or his siblings will stay. 

“I would be surprised if any of us do … partly because of housing and partly because of opportunities - there are not really any careers here.” Work in tourist towns like Bude is often seasonal and low paid, and wages across Cornwall are below the national average.

“The market’s just not right for people that are getting their first jobs and just starting off in their career. It's almost impossible to buy a house or pay rent with the jobs on offer.”

Jennings would not be the first to move away. Data shows that the average age in rural areas is much higher than in urban ones, and is increasing at a faster rate. 

Nathan Martin has already made his move, albeit temporarily. He spoke to The Lead again a few months after leaving the caravan for university (although he’ll return for the holidays). He explains that staying on his family’s land was limiting his future prospects and his independence. 

“I'll come back in time, but I don't know when I will,” he says. “I like it at home, but I take it for granted because I'm used to everything. Having my family nearby was very helpful but it restricts your independence because you are subconsciously reliant on them.”

How can the system do more to provide the independence Martin and so many others like him crave? Rebecca Smith has a very simple answer:“We need new houses.” 

While legislation may help in the long term, increasing the supply of affordable houses is without doubt the most direct solution according to Smith. Given the number of young people being failed by the shortage right now, it’s a point that’s hard to argue.

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