When the weather’s clement there can be few finer places in the country than Arkengarthdale. It is the northernmost of the Yorkshire Dales and its stark, brooding moorlands are part of the allure for visitors who want to recharge their batteries and reconnect with nature.
Its winding roads take you through tiny and wonderfully-named places such as Whaw, Eskeleth and Booze that have helped make this remote corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park a popular spot on the tourist trail.
However, on a day like today, when the skies are battleship grey and icy rain is coming down in stair-rods, you can count the number of tourists on the fingers of one hand. But then it’s easy attracting visitors during the summer months, it’s an altogether different proposition doing it in the depths of winter.
There’s also a growing feeling that the Yorkshire Dales National Park has become a victim of its own success, amid fears that the number of second homes is pricing out local people and leaving younger generations facing the heart-wrenching decision to leave the market towns and villages where they grew up and where their families have lived for generations.
In a bid to address the critical housing shortage within the park and stem the exodus of young families from rural communities, civic leaders in Richmondshire, Craven and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), have proposed a five-fold increase in the amount of council tax paid on second homes.
Councillor Carl Lis, chairman of the National Park Authority, is unequivocal about what is at stake. “Communities within the Dales are going to die unless we do something about this. There will be an awful lot of obstacles in our way, but we owe it to the future generations of the Yorkshire Dales to try.”
In Arkengarthdale, second homes make up around 30 per cent of the housing stock, the highest proportion in the park.
However, Stephen Stubbs, Arkengarthdale Parish Council’s chairman, says this is only one of a number of challenges facing communities in the Dales. “The biggest issue here is affordable housing and second homes adds to that problem,” he says.
“The place feels dead during the winter and really busy during the summer. We’re losing young people which means we don’t have the people to keep the shops and schools going and we’re left with an increasingly ageing population.”
He points to Arkengarthdale School where the number of pupils has dwindled to just 13. “A couple of years ago it was in the 20s,” he says.
It isn’t just buying houses that’s a problem, either. He says three-bedroom houses in parts of the Dales are charging £795 a month for rent. “Young people can’t afford that sort of money on the wages they get.”
To counter this there’s a proposal to build four new, affordable houses through the Community Land Trust. This might not sound very much, but when you think that Arkengarthdale has a population of less than 200 then it can have a significant impact. “Even if just a couple of young families move in with kids it would make a difference.”
Housing alone, though, can’t transform the fortunes of communities here. Ian Scott is a local councillor for Reeth and Arkengarthdale and works as a solicitor in the area.
He feels the lack of decent jobs is a major concern. “I have four children and only one still lives in the Dales. The other three have left like most other younger people because they can make a better living elsewhere.”
He believes part of the problem is down to the success of the Yorkshire Dales National Park itself. “This was a very pleasant rural area with very few visitors and then the National Park started advertising on TV and we had All Creatures Great and Small and it completely changed. People came here, saw how nice it was and wanted to have holiday cottages.”
This, he says, has had unintended consequences. “You find a lot of people who work in the area tend to live outside the dale in Catterick and Colburn, or as far away as Darlington.”
Rowena Hutchinson has been running the Red Lion Inn in Langthwaite since 1979, after taking over from her parents. She says the number of second homes and holiday lets isn’t the biggest issue in Arkengarthdale. “The big problem is lack of work. On top of that there’s no bus service, we have very poor broadband and no mobile phone reception.
“We used to have three shops, a post office, two buses a day and a mobile bank once a week and they’ve all gone. I’ve been here since 1964 and we’re far more isolated now than we were back then. We’ve been fighting to try and get mobile phone reception – Rishi Sunak [Conservative MP for Richmond] keeps bringing it up in Parliament but nothing’s happened.”
She says in the past few years a couple of cottages have sold nearby for around £130,000 each but weren’t bought by young families. “That’s affordable for most first time buyers, but the problem is the services aren’t good enough and the nearest bank is 10 miles away in Leyburn.”
Those who do move in are generally older people from outside the area. “Young people brought up in the Dales, unless they’re involved in farming, go to university, get a degree and they come back and there’s no work for them apart from part-time jobs. But what they need is full time employment.”
She doesn’t believe the proposed hike in council tax on second homes will make much difference unless the underlying issues are addressed. “If you don’t have the infrastructure I don’t see how you can bring people in.
“The powers that be don’t seem to accept that we don’t have a good infrastructure, but then the powers that be don’t live here.”
Rowena runs the Red Lion on her own though her sister, who lives on a nearby farm, helps out from time to time when it’s busy. It’s the kind of old-fashioned pub with low ceilings, tankards and snug corners that was once commonplace and which gladdens the heart when you stumble across one today. It has a darts team and quoits team and there are framed photos from the days when All Creatures Great and Small was filmed here.
Rowena says people that have moved into the village get involved in community life. “They mix in with the locals. People who have holiday cottages in Langthwaite are pretty regular customers so I can’t grumble. Christmas and New Year are my busiest times of the year. I couldn’t survive without them.”
But in spite of all the challenges she couldn’t imagine moving away. “Yes we get bad weather but so do most places. We’ve still got a good community spirit and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. There’s the birds and the wildflowers and for me there’s nowhere better.”
Making the Dales more sustainable
Plans for a proposed increase in the amount of council tax paid on second homes in the Yorkshire Dales National Park will be discussed at a meeting of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority next Tuesday.
The aim of the proposals, which would take the annual tax for a house in the top band to £16,400, is to counter the ageing and declining populations of many villages.
This follows the creation of Land Community Land Trusts (CLTs) – non-profit organisations set up and run by local people – to build more affordable houses and to create protected homes to rent.
With house prices in the Yorkshire Dales nearly 10 times average earnings it’s hoped these trusts can make a difference.