No: 'Londoners like us do need a thatched cottage'

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The Independent Online

Try telling our three-year-old son that we should not own a home outside London. Almost every journey, however short, is punctuated by Charlie's cry, "Are we going to the cottage?" All of our children love it there. Whereas each outing in central London, where we live most of the time, has to be supervised; in Northamptonshire they can cycle to the village shop or to the swings. If you are eight, it is a rite of passage.

Try telling our three-year-old son that we should not own a home outside London. Almost every journey, however short, is punctuated by Charlie's cry, "Are we going to the cottage?" All of our children love it there. Whereas each outing in central London, where we live most of the time, has to be supervised; in Northamptonshire they can cycle to the village shop or to the swings. If you are eight, it is a rite of passage.

Like others, I only use the words "second home" while holding a fragrant nosegay to my nostrils, to hide the bad aroma they exude. But I know that more and more people will buy second homes, because more and more people feel they need them.

Unlike France, Italy or other continental countries, Britain is dominated by one vast capital city, where unfortunates like me have to work. Colleagues who commute reconcile themselves to seeing their children only at weekends. By contrast, I like to take my children to school. Environmentally, it is more sustainable to live close to work. As an antidote, we own a cottage.

Some people do it the other way around. London is full of pied-à-terres which are just as much second homes as our cottage. In relation to the total housing stock, Londoners are too small in number to affect the market. There are supposed to be 150,000 second homes across Britain - a tiny figure in relation to other demographic forces, not least the number of economic migrants arriving from eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Far more people divorce, creating an immediate need for two residences, than own second homes. The most expensive place in Britain to buy a house is supposed to be Henley-on-Thames. There are not many second homes around there, because most residents commute.

Northamptonshire is not a fashionable county like Gloucestershire, and second homes are rare. Being old, thatched and generally inconvenient, our cottage would not suit everyone in the village, so I do not feel that our occupation of it deprives a needy local family. It is sad that some villages in the West Country should be deserted outside the holiday season; but even there, I wonder if it is the second home phenomenon which has pushed property beyond the reach of locals.

Property everywhere outside Hartlepool and other decayed northern towns has become expensive. If you work in a Berkshire supermarket or garage, your mortgage may not stretch far enough to buy a house anywhere. Second-homers may have created their own, hyper expensive market in beauty spots, but they cannot be blamed for the cost of property in and around Slough.

To preserve a healthy social mix, deep country areas need more low-cost houses for rent. From this point of view, the sale of council houses, particularly in rural areas where choice is limited, was disastrous. On the other hand, former council houses have not become second homes.

Often it is newcomers who bring the enthusiasm necessary to revitalise old villages. They may not be there all week, but their skills and energy are valuable. Their second homes may become their primary homes in time. Besides, what is to be done? Measures to restrict second homes would distort the market, causing unfairness and corruption. Legislation must be unlikely. Members of Parliament, living beside Westminster during the week and in their constituencies at weekends, know that some people need two homes. I am without shame in putting my own family in that category.

Clive Aslet is the editor of 'Country Life'

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