Just back from my annual pilgrimage to Cornwall- body boarding, beach barbeques and Betjeman. (I pay tribute to his grave at St Enedoc’s Church near Trebetherick). I used to annoy my mother by sending her picture postcards variously inscribed “Five words are cheaper” (the postage was a halfpenny cheaper), or sometimes “Weather here; Wish you were lovely.” The weather wasn’t great in Cornwall, but it did not for a second put a damper on our family holiday.
Tourism is worth 25%-28% to the Cornish economy, or perhaps £2.4 billion over the year. So while I sympathise to some degree with the nostalgic longing for houses in charming villages once again being occupied by locals contributing to the local community rather than by prosperous holidaymakers and second home owners, I do also have real reservations about it. Is it really a realistic longing; and anyhow do we really want it? It’s the visitors and second homeowners who bring such huge benefit to the local economy. And if some mad merchant banker wants to pay £500,000 for a 2-bed bungalow in Rock, then it is the local seller who benefits from it. Is that not their right, even if it does have the effect of ‘hollowing out’ the local community?
Do we want to drive away tourists from these hotspots by taxing them out of existence, and making Majorca or Disney Land attractive by comparison? And even if we did want to do so for some crazy reason, will Michael Gove’s recent proposal to allow local authorities to charge double council tax on second home owners really have the effect he is seeking? Will the AirBnB owner not simply pass the higher tax onto the visitors? And if you are ready to pay millions for a cliff top house in Cornwall, are you likely to be deterred by a thousand or two extra on the Council tax? I think not. I can see its attraction as a kind of Socialist punitive tax against rich people; I can see the attraction of increasing Cornwall County Council’s tax take at the expense of the second homeowner. But will it actually change the pattern of home ownership in beautiful places like North Cornwall or North Wiltshire? I think not; and anyhow would we really want it to?
Wiltshire apparently does not have something called a Local Visitor Economy Partnership, which means in layman’s terms that Wiltshire Council will no longer fund the Government’s National Tourism Strategy. Perhaps if they had one, they would think again about imposing an unwelcome parking charge in Castle Combe, which means that tourists simply park on the (entirely free) rural lanes all round this most perfect of villages instead, with obvious safety and environmental consequences. Meanwhile the Lib Dem controlled Cotswold District Council are ending funding of visitor centres, arguing that people now use the Internet instead. It’s a high-risk proposition. The Visitor Information Centre in Cirencester, for example, could quite easily be turned into a worthwhile revenue centre (with a decent coffee shop, for example).
Tourism generates £100 billion a year in England alone, and employs over 2 million people, which makes it twice the size of the NHS. In an area as beautiful and tourist-attractive as the South Cotswolds, surely we should be rejoicing in the economic and social benefits which accrue from visitors rather than seemingly doing all we can to deter them?