With proposals to inflict a massive council tax bill on second homes in the Yorkshire Dales mooted, Sarah Freeman speaks to the young people its designed to help.
Charlie Wilkinson is one of the lucky ones. The 36-year-old grew up in Kettlewell and when he drives the six miles or so from his regular shift at the Falcon Inn at Arncliffe he knows that he is returning to his own four walls. His parents built him a house on their land a few years ago, and it’s a property he knows he could never have afforded on the wages he earns pulling pints.
“I did some sums the other night,” he says. “If I was renting this place, say for £500, and having to pay the council tax and all the other bills I would be left with £18 a week to live on. No one can live on that, but that’s the situation we have here.
“A few years ago I moved away. I lived for a while in both Luton and Brighton getting some experience of the hospitality trade, but I knew it wasn’t going to be forever. I was always going to come back. For people like me, the Dales isn’t just the place you were born, it’s part of who you are, but there are a lot of people who I grew up with who didn’t have any choice. Making a good living here can be difficult and I have said a lot of goodbyes.”
The issue of young people being priced out of the rural housing market where jobs tend to be low-paid and homes are expensive is one that has long been talked of round these parts. However, few can remember the debate ever being as vociferous as it has been recently.
Towards the end of last year the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority mooted that second-home owners could be singled out for crippling council tax bills as part of a radical plan to attract more young families into the area.
Some suggested the cost could be as much as five times the regular charge, adding about £6,600 to the annual bill for an average Band D property and taking the annual tax for a house in the top band to £16,400.
To describe the proposal as divisive is an understatement and it wasn’t long before the Dales Homeowners Action Group (DHAG) formed, claiming that ultimately an estimated 3.4m second-home owners across the country could be affected.
Members of the DHAG have been very vocal and are armed with persuasive anecdotes about how James Herriot creator Alf Wright lived outside the park, but bought a second home in Coverdale on the back of his success.
Now Charlie and others like him also want their voice to be heard and claim the second-home tax may cause more problems than it provides solutions.
“For a start, I’m not sure how easy it would be to police,” he says. “If I lived in Leeds and had a home in the Dales I’m sure it would be fairly easy to claim the latter was the main residence. However, even aside from the logistics it ignores the underlying issue. Young people don’t move away from here because they can’t afford to buy a house, they move away from here because there aren’t any jobs.
“What would be really radical was if the National Park Authority showed it was committed to building and supporting business hubs, places people could establish proper long-term companies.
“We get a lot of people coming to the Dales setting up artisan crafts business, which is all very nice but often those behind them don’t need to earn an actual living wage from the enterprise and they tend not to last very long.
“With many of the low-cost housing options, the only storage you get is a shed in the back garden. For anyone wanting to start up a trade, that’s no good, but try and find proper workshop space around here and you will struggle.”
Charlie’s mother, who comes from Grassington, hails from a long line of farmers and his father ran the local filling station just like his father before him. However, how many future generations of Wilkinsons will make their home here is uncertain.
“What’s really frustrating is this is not a new problem,” he adds. “I am among the second generation of young people who watched friends struggle to find decent jobs and the third generation will soon be upon us.
“Organisations like the National Dales Park Authority says it wants to protect the heritage of the Dales and I am sure they do, but the history of this place isn’t the buildings or the stone walls. The history of this place is about the people and if we go we can’t be replaced.”
While Emily Wright hasn’t quite given up hope of owning her own property, the 21-year-old knows that despite working up to 60 hours a week, amassing enough money for a deposit will take years.
“During the day I work at a children’s nursery and on an evening and weekends I supplement that with cleaning,” says Emily, who currently lives with her partner Jamie at his parents’ home. “We both work hard, but we can’t afford any of the homes which come on the market in Kettlewell.
“My parents didn’t buy their own house until they were in their 40s and I remember as a child having to move out of a house we were renting because the owner wanted to turn it into a holiday home. I can understand that. They make more money, but I do think that something has to give.
“Both Jamie and I grew up here and we want to stay here, but if we want to get a foot on the property ladder realistically we will have to move much further down the Dale where property is cheaper. We don’t like the area as much and all our friends are here, but we may not have any choice.”
The problem of second-home ownership is not unique to the Yorkshire Dales. In the 1980s Welsh extremists were accused of burning down a number of English holiday cottages in North Wales. While the situation in North Yorkshire hasn’t reached that same level of fever pitch, there are concerns that the proposed council tax hike could draw a battle line right through the Dales.
“There is a danger that all second-home owners are demonised, but it’s much more complex than that,” says Louise Cole, who has saved a deposit for a home with her husband John and two young daughters but has yet to find a suitable property.
“Not that long ago I approached someone about buying a property which has stood empty for a while. It turned out that it was her mother’s. She had gone into a nursing home and the family didn’t feel they were in a position to sell.
“We do need to do something, but a lot of the second-home owners really contribute to the economy of the Dales. I know some of them feel like they are being unfairly targeted and one posted on a Facebook group that they were no longer going to shop locally.
“From the people who were born here to those who come on holiday here, together we all make up the community of the Dales and we need to come together. We can’t afford to be divisive. This place is too special for that.”