Holiday Homes, Tourism, Borrowing Powers

My previous post was reasonably well received, and provoked a number of interesting comments. The mainstream media also picked up on the ONS figures, but with mixed results. A good example would be this piece on the BBC website’s News Magazine, by Tom de Castella. The title – ‘Do Ceredigion people have the most second homes?’ – and the first part of the article seem to be premised on the idea that many Ceredigion people have holiday homes. But then, half way through, it’s almost as if someone whispered in his ear, ‘It’s the English students, Tom, distorting the figures’, for the article changed tack.

Inevitably, I suppose, most media outlets concentrated on the figures for holiday homes, and the alarming statistics for Gwynedd. (Or, quite acceptable statistics, depending on how you view holiday homes.) On Tuesday morning someone tipped me off about a Radio Wales programme that was to discuss the issue, so I tuned in. (Here’s a link, but it won’t last long.) To begin with, the prog was hosted by Jason Mohammad, who belongs to that coterie of Welsh ‘journalists’ believing that Welsh identity is defined and exemplified by a Shane Williams try or a Catherine Zeta Jones frock. So I’ve always had difficulty taking him seriously; and I was alienated further by the holiday home owner who was allowed to spout his self-justifying nonsense unchallenged, before I was finally turned off – as was Radio Wales – when we were subjected to a hesitant and totally unconvincing spokesman for Cymdeithas yr Iaith. So let us consider holiday homes, and the manifest bollocks that to them attach.

Among the predictable nonsense we heard from the English holiday home owner on Jase’s show was, ‘ . . . derelict . . . no local wanted it . . . I spend a lot of money locally . . . lucky to have me . . . ‘. While elsewhere, a spokesperson for the Welsh Government reminded us that holiday homes play an important role in Welsh tourism. Well, you can either buy all that, or you can give the matter some thought. The second option will, I guarantee, bring you to different conclusions.

First, let’s deal with this ‘no one wanted it’ defence for holiday homes, suggesting that they’ve all lain derelict out in ‘the wilds’ for years. Truth is, most holiday homes are within established communities. In the village where I live virtually all the English-owned holiday homes are terraced – former quarrymen’s – properties of the kind that would be ideal for first-time buyers . . . if the demand from holiday home buyers and English colonists did not push the prices beyond the financial reach of those young locals. The advantages of a terraced property as a holiday home are obvious. Less garden to keep in order, and grass to cut. Easier to keep warm in winter, thereby reducing the risk of burst pipes. Greater security from burglary or other attack.

Then there’s the ‘I spend a lot of money in this area’ argument. Maybe; but there’s no way a property used as a holiday home can be putting more money into the local economy than that same property if it was lived in all year round by a Welsh family. Which leads me to consider another aspect of holiday homes’ economic value. Because I know that those coming here for holidays appreciate that in rural Mid Wales prices are higher than in the English Midlands. So most stock up with petrol, food, and just about everything they’ll need, before leaving home. Of course they spend money when they’re in Wales, but that amount is overstated.

Holiday homes are part of the wider problem of an unregulated, alien and damaging tourism industry. Consequently, what I’ve said about holiday homes is true for caravans (mobile homes), chalets and all self-catering accommodation. In addition, they sustain few jobs. A caravan park with hundreds of trailers (the upkeep of which is the responsibility of the owners) can tick over with few employees beyond the family owning the siteor, in the case of larger sites, the (usually imported) management team. Because that’s the suppressed truth about caravan sites and chalet developments – they make a lot of money for those owning them, but put little into the wider economy in terms of spending, or the community in terms of employment.

For Wales to have a tourism industry that benefits us Welsh, rather than disadvantages us, as at present, we need to question just about everything that currently passes for accepted wisdom in the field. Most fundamentally, the raison d’être for ‘Welsh’ tourism, which was always to serve English needs and interests. This was true when the railways first reached ‘Wild Wales’ and it has recently taken on the renewed necessity we see with the UK government’s call for ‘staycations’. That’s because most of the money spent by English tourists in Wales willmake its way back to England, in taxes, purchases and by other routes
. It doesn’t seem to matter how much tourism harms Welsh identity, Welsh communities, the Welsh language, the environment . . . this is acceptable collateral damage.
From a Welsh perspective, then, we have the worst possible kind of tourism. For in addition to all I’ve written above, most of the businesses parting tourists from their money are English-owned. Making tourism in Wales blatantly colonialist. We do not have Welsh tourism; we have an English tourism industry that just happens to be based in Wales.

Thoughts of tourism bring me, by a roundabout route, to the subject of the Welsh Government acquiring powers to borrow money. Those of you with lives so empty that you have followed this debate will know what I’m talking about; so what follows is for those out there who are not losing the will to live and have better things to do than heed the vacuous and self-serving utterances of those deadbeats down Cardiff docks. Or, for that matter, their counterparts in London
As things stand, our tribunes down in Nick Edwards Bay are not allowed to borrow money. (Perhaps due to the very real fear that they’ll waste it on Third Sector shysters.) Unfortunately, this gives them yet another excuse to blame someone else for the mess Wales is in. However, it now looks like their bluff may be called. For it is being mooted that borrowing powers might be granted by the Silk Commission (currently looking into the Welsh devolution settlement).

According to the piece in today’s Wasting Mule (here’s the WalesOnline version), agreement has been reached between Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander; Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones; both representing the UK government; and Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, representing the Cardiff docks deadbeats Welsh Government. In her selling of the deal to an expectant nation Ms Hutt referred to ” . . . the needs of a maturing country like Wales . . .”. In which way is Wales a “maturing country”? Wales is, by European standards, a very old country. So is Hutt referring to the Welsh Assembly, or her Government? If so, why confuse devolution with the interests of the Welsh nation? The two are almost completely divorced, as we are learning to our cost, almost daily.

But let’s look ahead and assume that in the near future the Welsh Government is given power to raise funding through borrowing, what options might it have? Imposing a tax on holiday homes would be one popular option, that could be extended to static caravans and chalets. Also worth considering would be the kind of tourist tax levied elsewhere in Europe, and not just in independent countries, for Cornwall has discussed the idea. Even English cities have toyed with imposing a tourist tax. A few years ago, writing in Cambria magazine, I had this to say about a tourist tax in Wales:
“The money raised should be spent in the areas from which it has been levied to alleviate the problems suffered by the indigenous population. It could be used in grants to help locals in the private housing market, or to help locals compete for the business opportunities that now go to wealthier buyers from over the border. A larger portion could go to local authorities to repair the damage done to local infrastructure or to reduce council tax charges. Thus funded, councils might even be able to build new council houses.
To argue that such a tax would reduce the numbers coming to Wales is no argument at all. Many more Welsh are disadvantaged by tourism than benefit from it, so how can we as a people lose out if fewer tourists come? Five million tourists paying the tax is better than twenty-five million untaxed tourists. Five million people staying an average of seven nights and paying two pound a head per night amounts to £70,000.000 every year.”
If we are serious about tourism, if we are to make it serve Wales, then we need to do what other countries do. The first step is for our politicians to realise that the form of tourism we are lumbered with was never designed to serve Welsh interests. It simply uses our homeland as England’s playground. This was insulting enough before we had a Welsh Government, now that we have a body so designated, it is intolerable. Reform can no longer be delayed.

  • Phase out all large caravan parks, especially those disfiguring our coastline. Aim for small, well screened sites on farms and other locations where a) they will benefit Welsh site owners and b) be less intrusive.
  • Replace the caravan parks by encouraging the growth of locally-run small hotels and bed and breakfast establishments. Because serviced accommodation generates a) more income than caravan sites and b) more jobs.
  • Introduce a tourism tax of £2 per head per night.
  • Double the council tax on all holiday homes and put a limit on the percentages allowed in each community, but never more than 15 per cent. In communities currently suffering higher percentages, no further properties will be allowed to be used as holiday homes until the figure falls below 15 per cent.
  • Use the money raised by the above measures to benefit the communities affected. Improve infrastructure, reduce council tax, provide training and funding for local people to start up new tourism enterprises and buy existing ones.
  • Underpin these and other changes with the realisation that it is in Wales’ interests to go for quality over quantity. That is, fewer, but higher spending visitors rather than millions upon millions of tourists who bring their own food with them.

‘Playground Wales’ tourism and the English colonisation that accompanies it have done great harm to Wales, the Welsh language, and to Welsh identity generally. Today one can spend a week in a tourist ‘hotspot’ like Llandudno or St David’s and hardly realise one is in Wales. Unless checked, the damage inflicted by tourism can only increase until it becomes fatal.

The Welsh Government may soon have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. For it can fund its borrowing requirements by revenue raised from a reformed tourism industry serving Wales and the Welsh people. Alternatively, it can underwrite those borrowing requirements by taking yet more money from us Welsh. If it chooses the second option then we shall have further proof that this is a Welsh Government in name only.

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