Devon, where I grew up and have lived on and off my whole life, always had a surplus of affordable places to live. Even a couple of years ago many private rentals stood empty for months. This year, when my husband and I needed to move back from Lundy, an island off the north Devon coast, things were very different.
There was such a dearth of long-term rentals that I found myself jumping on anything listed. We competed with 50 others for an overpriced place that had flooded the previous winter, and had our application rejected for a bungalow with a scoreboard above the bed. For most properties, we didn’t even get to the application process. Many listed in the morning would be fully booked for viewings by lunchtime. Soon, we expanded our search from north Devon to the entire county, and then to Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Wherever we looked, I heard the same story: “Fully booked for viewings.”
Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has triggered a reappraisal of city living. Many of those who began working from home desired more space; those without gardens craved access to the outdoors. This has caused a boom in rental and buying markets in rural areas, which are now seeing an influx of what the property website Rightmove calls “cash-rich relocators”. Last summer, inquiries for village properties on the website from city residents – primarily from Liverpool, Edinburgh, Birmingham and London – more than doubled. The only areas where rents have decreased since the pandemic began are the north-east and Greater London. Where I live, it sometimes feels as though every derelict barn has an estate agent’s sign on it.
This sudden demand is pushing up the average cost of housing in rural areas beyond what some locals are able to pay, and amplifying a pre-existing housing crisis. Although these problems are particularly acute in the south-west, which has seen one of the highest annual rental price rises as of June 2021, the problem has reached as far as the Hebrides, where locals recently wrote an open letter describing an “economic clearance” where young islanders could no longer compete with offers being made by people from elsewhere in the UK.
Rural areas suffer from a historic undersupply of affordable housing. Government data shows that over the past 15 years, for every six private houses built in rural areas in England, just one affordable dwelling has been added. The ratio in urban areas is not much better, at just five to one, but it is only recently this gap between rural and urban areas has been closed. In 2004-05, the first year the government started recording this data, just one affordable dwelling was built for every 12 private houses in rural areas, compared with one for every seven in cities.
Emma Dee Hookway, a housing activist who set up a Facebook group for people seeking homes in north Devon and Torridge, says that people who are working multiple jobs have posted in the group searching for eight-person tents to house whole families. Linda, a farmer by trade, told me that she has lived in the area her whole life with her husband, who now has terminal cancer. She is his full-time carer. Her landlord gave her a section 21(6A) eviction notice, and the rental crisis means she has been unable to find anywhere to live. At the time of writing, she has just five days to find a home.
The answer to this crisis doesn’t lie in building thousands more homes and damaging the already fragile ecosystems that made the countryside an attractive place to live in the first place, but in addressing the paucity of homes available for social and affordable rent. One obvious solution would be to clamp down on second home ownership in the rural areas with the worst shortages. Sales of countryside second homes to London-based buyers more than doubled in 2020. The government has yet to close the council tax loophole that allows owners to register second homes as businesses to avoid paying council tax. In Wales, plans to review second home ownership were recently announced, while in Salcombe on Devon’s south coast the council is considering banning second home purchases. More immediately, those with second homes sitting empty should be obliged to provide affordable rental accommodation for people who need it.
Of course, an influx of former urban dwellers could bring some real benefits to rural areas, particularly if people are relocating and therefore contributing to the local economy in a meaningful way. But more has to be done to address the pricing out of people from their local areas, particularly younger renters. It seems that, four months into our search, we have finally found somewhere to live. But if I were on my own, earning what I earn, I fear I would be a friend’s sofa away from having nowhere to live. Scrolling through Rightmove and Zoopla for months, I saw eye-watering prices, and DSS payments – or housing benefits – were not accepted, which is what people on low incomes often rely on to survive. Many already have nowhere to go.