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St Ives Referendumgate

Written by Simon Tolson on

Amidst the usual misleading headlines and inaccurate reporting let’s take a look at what exactly the residents of St Ives have voted for and what are the implications.

I’m actually writing the column this week whilst on holiday visiting my son who is on his year abroad in Northern Italy.  My long suffering wife knows that I’ll always be doing a bit of work and I couldn’t possibly let down both my regular readers but I have promised to be calm and definitely not to get into a rant about anything whilst I am away.

OK that didn’t last long, once again I find myself feeling like rolling around and beating the floor in frustration and if I had any hair I’d be tearing it out!

The referendum in St Ives was all about addressing a very real issue that local people are priced out of the market and the geography of the town with no room for expansion limits the range of options available.  The neighbourhood plan being voted on very sensibly requires that 50% of new development is affordable homes but it is the requirement that all new developments may only be sold for use as a primary residence that has generated national and even international interest.

Just to be clear this affects only new developments that are completely new buildings or extending old ones- all existing properties and new developments such as converting a large house into apartments are unaffected.

So how was this reported- here’s a good example of a headline from The Mail:

Residents of St Ives where 25% of all properties are second homes are to hold a referendum on banning holiday properties.

Total misrepresentation but I guess I should grow up and expect this.

Even more surprising is to find this contribution in the article:

‘Keith Varnals, president of St Ives Tourism Association, told MailOnline: ‘It’s like a ghost town. It’s pretty much pitch black. Hardly anybody actually lives there any more. It’s so sad.’

Speaking in 2014, he said: ‘The only lights you see are the pubs and restaurants still open for the winter trade. Everyone else has locked up their second homes and left. It’s as though the last person leaving turned the lights out.’. In 2014 up to 90 per cent of homes in the district known as Downalong were second homes, with many bought as pension investments and let out as holiday cottages, sometimes for more than £2,000 a week.’

Now to me this is rather like the argument that migrants are coming over here living on benefits and taking our jobs- you can’t have it both ways.  We don’t cover St Ives but I know that occupancy rates are very high there, over 40 weeks in the sort of key area being talked about so either they are locked up or they are being rented out a lot which would make them full of people most of the time.  Also residential property has never been allowed as a pension investment but I wouldn’t expect the author or contributor to check this simple fact of course!

Finally are you a bit surprised to see a representative of the Tourism Association describe the town he is supposed to promote in this way?  Me too!

The failure of the media to differentiate between holiday lets and lock up second homes is the thing that really frustrates me- there’s a big difference between the two in terms of what they do to a community but whenever there’s a chance to print a ‘locals fight London toffs’ story it’s the headline that’s remembered not the detail even if there was a proper analysis in the text.

The mechanism used will be a permanent covenant as part of planning permission that will require that the property is used only as a main residence and this is to be enforced by checking that the resident is on the electoral roll or registered with a doctor.  Now my first thought was that this would be very simple for anyone to get round as a couple could just register one of them on the electoral roll or with a local doctor, just look at the lengths people are prepared to go to when trying to get their kids into the right school.

On reflection however, and thinking of experiences I’ve had with residents’ associations and apartment block management committees I think it will be policed very effectively by the neighbours and even going on a long holiday will probably see you having to explain yourself.

So in conclusion it will be interesting to see how things develop and whether the policy works but given the way that things are twisted by the press communities should be very careful with the message they send out as it is very easy to go from helping locals to ‘holidaymakers not welcome here’ and end up damaging the industry that helps many people buy a property in the first place.

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