First shots fired in fight to stop the invasion of the second home owners

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The Independent Online

Second-home owners may mean no harm, but in more and more of Britain's desirable villages and country towns they are like cuckoos in the nest, forcing the original inhabitants out. But now a Scottish council is taking tough action to keep them in check.

Second-home owners may mean no harm, but in more and more of Britain's desirable villages and country towns they are like cuckoos in the nest, forcing the original inhabitants out. But now a Scottish council is taking tough action to keep them in check.

Braemar in Aberdeenshire, a village nestling in the shadow of the Cairngorm mountain range, which is the jewel in the crown of Royal Deeside, may be declared Britain's first "pressured area" in housing terms. So many properties are being sold to outsiders that local people cannot afford homes, and the right-to-buy of local council tenants may be suspended.

But the Scottish example may be a sign of things to come nationwide. Similar pressures are building in the West Country and rural Wales as the tide of second homes creeps across the countryside.

North of the border, the royal retreat made famous by the patronage of Queen Victoria more than 100 years ago has become a victim of its own success. For a century, Braemar has provided tourists with an unrivalled experience of scenic beauty and Scotland's history.

Yet the increasing number of "visitors" willing to pay a king's ransom to secure a permanent place within the boundary of the soon-to-be established Cairngorms National Park is forcing out many local people. An explosion in the number of purchases of houses that might be used for just a couple of weeks a year has pushed property prices out of the reach of resident villagers and is stifling economic growth.

Aberdeenshire council is considering a radical solution to the problem by becoming the first local authority in the UK to declare "Pressured Area Status" and suspend the right-to-buy of tenants, to maintain some level of affordable housing stock.

It is a problem that has increased substantially throughout the UK over the past few years. Low interest rates and a boom in city property prices have enabled more people to remortgage and invest in a second home.

From the fishing communities of Devon and Cornwall to the wilds of Wales, northern England and the Scottish Highlands, countryside residents have been pushed off the ladder by wealthier incomers from the cities willing to pay over the odds for a rural retreat.

Many buyers have found that good properties, although empty for much of the year, can command hundreds of pounds a week in holiday lets, making their purchases as much an investment as an indulgence.

Homelessness in rural areas has reached more than 13 per cent in the past few years. There are at least 180,000 second homes and 400,000 empty properties in England alone.

In Devon and Cornwall the price of coastal properties in some of the most picturesque villages has more than doubled in the past two years because the demand for second homes has forced the price of some two-bedroom cottages above £300,000.

In Wales, the problem of second-home owners dominating the property market has led to demonstrations and calls within the Welsh Assembly to define the sale of homes to outsiders as a "change of use" so that they could be blocked.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park became the first planning authority in Wales last year to curb holiday and retirement homes by rejecting house-building schemes that did not provide affordable accommodation for locals.

Last month, rural activists concerned that the level of English incomers buying second homes in Wales was destroying native culture laid siege to the office of a London estate agentin protest at its marketing of holiday homes in the Snowdonia National Park. Despite government attempts to stem the growing problem by announcing plans in November to allow local authorities the option of ending council-tax discounts on holiday homes, desperate measures are still being sought by many communities.

Derek Logie, of the Rural Housing Service, said: "The very fact that Aberdeenshire are considering applying for pressured area status for Braemar shows just how serious this problem is.

"It's very difficult for people working in low-paid industries such as tourism and agriculture, which makes up the bulk of employment around Braemar, to compete with the prices offered by outsiders."

The lack of affordable accommodation means local businesses are unable to recruit staff and it is forcing younger members of the community to move out of the village. Full employment among the 400-strong permanent residents of the village means the booming tourist industry needs to attract new staff to the area but is unable to do so because of the shortage of affordable property or rentable accommodation.

Aberdeenshire also suffers from inflated property prices because of the unique influence of the North Sea oil industry.

For the Gathering Place restaurant in the centre of Braemar, the difficulty in finding a full-time chef is becoming critical. Alex Smith, the owner, said: "There aren't any unemployed chefs in the village so we will have to attract somebody from outside. The trouble is there is nowhere for them to live, even though a large proportion of houses around here are empty for much of the year.

"We are now of the opinion we will have to buy some land and build something just for staff accommodation if we want to be able to employ anybody."

The position is likely to get much worse after 1 September, when the Cairngorms National Park comes into being. Already there has been a rush in people trying to buy property in the area.

Estimates of available housing within the park boundary suggest that more than 27 per cent of properties are used as second homes or for private rentals such as holiday lets – three times the Scottish average. The number of available rental properties has fallen by 11 per cent during the past 10 years, while the population has risen by 6 per cent, which is in contrast to a decline throughout the rest of Scotland.

Les Allen, of Aberdeenshire council, said: "We feel there is significant need for some sort of Pressured Area Status provision in that area. There is huge demand for affordable housing and large amounts of existing stock in that area is ineffective because they are being used as holiday homes or left empty as second homes.

"People who grew up in Braemar and surrounding villages are having great difficulty in getting accommodation in this area because it is a place of such scenic beauty."

In addition to suspending the rights of tenants to buy their rented homes, the local authority is also considering plans to build more low-cost homes in the area. Marcus Humphrey, councillor for Upper Deeside, said: "There is a severe lack of affordable housing to rent and buy, but this option would enable us to put a stop on the number of tenants exercising their right to buy and then selling the properties off at a profit as a second home.

"It's a long-term plan but, in conjunction with encouraging housing associations to build in the area, we should be able to get more affordable houses on the ground. If Braemar is to survive as a living village it needs to attract more people willing to live and work there, not just visit for a couple of weeks, and Pressured Area Status is one option which might help us achieve that."

'There's a danger of the community falling apart'

It is more than 10 years since Louise Kelly, a business manager, moved to Braemar from her home in North Wales, but only recently has she able to put down roots within the community.

In the past three years she has been living in the same rented property. But before that she was forced to live a nomadic lifestyle as she flitted between a succession of short-term rentals.

"I tried for seven years to find something but buying is out of the question as prices are too high and most rentals are for short term only," she says.

"At one stage I had to move five times in 15 months until I finally got a council property, but there are others less lucky who have to move away."

As the business manager of the Braemar Highland Heritage Centre, along with three other commercial premises in the heart of the village, Louise has become fully immersed in the local community.

"I have fallen in love with this place and there is nowhere I would rather live," she says.

"But I am lucky I have managed to find a council house to rent as I certainly could never afford to buy. Back in North Wales I could probably buy a small house for about £60,000, but in Braemar I would be lucky to get a plot of land big enough to build a small house on for that amount."

It is not just her own circumstances which cause dismay over the lack of suitable property however.

"As an employer, I find it very difficult to attract any staff because there is nowhere for anybody to stay while they're working here. It's not too bad to get somewhere to rent from October to Easter, but after that most private landlords want to advertise their properties for holiday lets – and at £400 a week or more, who can blame them?

"This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it's a shame that there are so many properties around here which stand empty for up to 50 weeks a year.

"Every community needs new blood and new skills, but without anywhere for them to live the danger is that the community will eventually fall apart," she says.