Dark reality hidden behind the picturesque scenery
Ashley Seager, Monday January 21 2008
Behind the picture postcard Cornish harbours,stunning countryside and attractions such as the Eden Project lies a harsh economic reality that makes life tough for ordinary people.
Such has been the upward pressure on house prices from second-home owners and the lack of well-paid jobs, that Cornwall now has the biggest gap in Britain between the average house price and the average salary, according to recent data from Hometrack. With the decline of the china clay industry, more and more people are dependent on low-paying jobs in tourism.
Richard Whitehouse, of the local St Austell Guardian, says the average house price in the region is £180,000 – not far off the UK average of about £195,000. “But the average salary is only around £14,000-15,000 a year, way below the national average. So for many people buying a house is simply out of the question if they have to find 12 times their salary,” he says. Wages are among the UK’s lowest at an average of £317 a week gross.
Countrywide figures show that one in 10 homes in Cornwall are second homes for people from other parts of Britain – many of them wealthy Londoners taking equity from their highly priced homes and snapping up cottages in pretty coastal villages.
But in places such as the picturesque village of Fowey near St Austell, the second home problem is all too clear. Full of boutique shops, the place is like a ghost town on a January afternoon. Almost every property near the waterfront seems to be advertising itself as a holiday let. “The vast majority of period properties down here are second homes,” says Jennie Elderkin, director of Fowey River estate agents.
The town is well kept, and there is no doubt that outside money is keeping the place in good order, with local tradesmen busy renovating properties.
The area is vibrant, with plenty going on and good schools. But a two-bedroom cottage by the water will set you back £300,000 – a price beyond the reach of most first-time buyers.
“Getting on the housing ladder on Cornish wages is well-nigh impossible. Many young people either rent or live with their parents,” adds Elderkin.
Small wonder, then, that Restormel borough council has made affordable housing its number-one priority, higher even than the regeneration of deprived towns such as St Austell, which have attracted millions of pounds of European Union funding in recent years.
Cornwall was once industrialised, with thriving tin mines and china clay pits. The historic South Crofty tin mine is to reopen in response to the rising price of the metal. But most jobs are in tourism, where low wages and winter lay-offs are endemic. The Eden Project, just outside the china clay town of Par, is unusual in that it stays open all year and employs some 500 local people.
Dave Smith, who lives in Par, says: “Most people who live here aren’t from round here at all. They have moved here from other parts of the country because it is a nice place to live.”
In St Austell, Ashley Potter, an estate agent, agrees that half of buyers are not locals. It is not as costly as trendier places such as Padstow or Fowey, he says, but it is hoped that a multimillion-pound redevelopment, financed by the South West Development Agency, will improve the town’s fortunes.