Cornwall: A land of haves, and have nots

As David Cameron and family join the smart set on the Cornish beaches, Emily Dugansees the other side of a county mired in deep poverty

As David Camer-on arrives with his family in north Cornwall today, he will join an invading army of the well-heeled that heads down every summer to sample the white sand beaches and temperate weather in what is becoming a rich man's playground.

Crossing into the county along the A30, a sign saying "Welcome To Cornwall" is surrounded on all sides by verdant hills and hedge- rows spilling over with wild flowers. But the road to Rock and Padstow leads to a very different slice of Cornwall life.

As the only county in England to qualify for emergency EU funding, it is actually one of the poorest parts of Europe. A world away from the catamarans of its Kensington holidaymakers, the area is on the front line of the global credit crunch.

Cornwall was at the bottom of the table of wealth in a recent EU survey, level with former eastern bloc countries such as Slovakia and Slovenia. Taking 100 as the benchmark for wealth, Cornwall scored 77.4 – far below most of the EU. The average wage in the county is 17 per cent below the rest of the country, but because of its attraction for second-home owners and the retired, property prices are much higher than the UK norm.

John Ede, of Cornwall Citizens Advice, said: "Cornwall is a microcosm of what we're seeing nationally because of the credit crunch, but it's exaggerated by the earning to house price ratio. The people who visit here see the beaches, yellow sand and green fields and have absolutely no concept of the reality because the poverty is hidden."

The average visitor to the Cornwall Citizens Advice bureaux has just under £15,000 of unsecured debt – which does not include money owed in mortgages. The level of debt dealt with between January and March this year was nearly three times higher than expected, with more than 500 families in temporary accommodation after being evicted from their properties.

Driving into the tourist town of Truro – where a poky flat can go for £200,000 – it is easy to see why local residents have been left behind. David Palmer's family have lived in Truro for generations. The 52-year-old grandfather was pulling chips from a deep fat fryer last Wednesday at the Sole Plaice, where he has worked for the past 14 years. "You worry about the future," he grimaced. "My daughter had to move to Birmingham because she couldn't get any work and it will never be possible for my kids to own a house here. People come down here and buy properties which put the prices up, but the wages stay the same – we don't stand a chance."

The report published last week by Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro and St Austell, into rural housing highlighted the iniquities of a market inflated by outside interest that eliminated the property chances for local residents.

Andrew George, MP for West Cornwall, says the Government is turning the county into a developers' paradise. This week he launched a petition to campaign for better housing rights for his constituents. "The planning system is fuelled more by greed than by need," said Mr George.

Some unlucky towns suffer from inflated house prices without the benefit of tourism. Lisa Curnow, 30, is the landlady of the deserted Railway Inn, which sits between the former mining towns of Redruth and Camborne. "I always think if I get tourists in here then they must be lost," she laughs. "When the mining was here you couldn't get in the door at lunch time or after work, but there's no big employers anymore and some afternoons we get no customers at all."

For more than 4,000 years mining was at the heart of the Cornish economy, so in 1999, when the last mine shut at South Crofty, the community imploded. Redruth, which gained notoriety this week as the first town to introduce a curfew for its young, has earned the nickname Beirut, thanks to the buildings burnt out after the local mining industry closed.

South Park estate in Redruth tells its own story of social exclusion. Kirsty Groves, 19, is a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet. She does part-time shifts at a pub, but says that she hates living there. "It's terrible. You can't get a job and even if you do find work the only jobs going are dead-end ones."

Ms Groves says many girls in the town have had children as a way of getting a house. "For me it was an accident, but the cost of living down here is so much and the wages are so little that it's no wonder so many people are having children and going on benefits."

Newquay has a different problem. Mid-week, the streets were packed with relaxed perma-tanned surfer dudes carrying boards of all kinds. The surfing boom has boosted the town, bringing £64m into the Cornish economy. Next weekend, when the Rip Curl Boardmasters festival comes to town, it will be even busier, as thousands of pro-surfers and groupies flock to the live music and surf contests.

However, there is another side to this rapid expansion. On Wednesday night the scene is one of near chaos. There are some 500 places serving drink in the small town, including 14 nightclubs, and five strip clubs. The most infamous is the ambitiously named Divas. The place is full of groups of men keen to see their £5 of flesh. Girls dressed in scraps of clothing lead men behind black gauze curtains for private dances while others prowl the bar.

A keenness to attract the "stag pound" has led to the boom in the town's sex trade. With entry fee and steep bar bills, joints like this rake money in, but many locals say it will damage attempts to attract more upmarket tourism.

In Padstow and Rock, just around the corner from Cameron's chosen holiday idyll of Harlyn Bay, sleaze and struggle seem a long way off. Queues of gleaming silver BMWs and Audis choke the winding lanes towards the beach; Land Rovers travelling out of town tow speed boats laden with water skis.

Six of the Top 10 families on the Sunday Times Rich List own property in Rock; it is home to more millionaires than anywhere else in Cornwall.

The average house price in Rock rose by 28 per cent £361,83 last year. It has succumbed to the invading army: with the locals priced out, it now bears a greater resemblance to Cannes than Cornwall.

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