Wish you weren’t here

Richard King, author of a new book about the country’s history, argues that the Welsh government should use its new-found self-confidence to finally tackle the housing crisis

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In the United Kingdom, as the Covid pandemic starts to gradually recede in severity, several fractures have been revealed in the Union. The devolved administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all responded to the pandemic with policy measures that diverged from Westminster.

In the Scottish parliament at Holyrood the leader, Nicola Sturgeon, placed great emphasis on holding daily press conferences during the height of the pandemic. The regularity of her appearances led to accusations that she was using the crisis to emphasise the political differences between Scotland and Westminster and to stoke the case for independence. The government of Northern Ireland regularly distanced itself from the more laissez-faire approach of London. A less obvious, but for those of us in Wales, more interesting feature of the three devolved governments’ response, was the increasingly assertive manner in which the government in Wales acted. Now known as the Senedd in both English and in the Welsh language Cymraeg, the Welsh Assembly government, led by the deceptively unassuming Labour leader Mark Drakeford, demonstrated both within and outside Wales that the country had discovered the confidence to steer a course of its own.

The Welsh government was reluctant to follow England in many of its pandemic decisions. It imposed restrictions sooner and kept them in place longer than its Westminster counterpart. At the start of the crisis, it was rumoured that many cabinet ministers in London, including the then health secretary, were unaware that health was a devolved matter that fell under the jurisdiction of the Senedd. Wales’ test and trace system was run by local authorities rather than donors and friends of the ruling party. The country’s vaccination programme initially proved so effective that it offered Drakeford the opportunity to gently chide Boris Johnson that, in terms of jabs in arms, Wales was running ahead of England.

Such success has not come without a political cost. Welsh Conservatives as well as their counterparts in Westminster are increasingly happy to claim devolution was a mistake that should now be rectified. Budgets for Wales’ public services intended to replace EU funding have been notably reduced, giving the impression that the Senedd is receiving a fiscal punishment beating for having over-reached itself these past two years. Despite disapproval from Westminster, the pandemic provided a rare and unlikely opportunity for the Senedd to demonstrate its core functions. For the first time in its 22-year history, a majority in Wales could point to its devolved government and agree on its usefulness, the running of its own health service in particular. The results in last year’s Senedd elections attested to this new-found popularity – Labour received their joint highest ever vote share.

If this new-found confidence was one factor that emerged as a phenomenon in Wales during the pandemic, another significant shift took place, one not exclusive to Wales but one that the country suffered from acutely – a heightened interest in the Welsh property market for people seeking either second homes or the possibility of a new life in a rural area. The fact that two Welsh coastal counties, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, had experienced some of the lowest levels of infection during the first Covid wave of 2020 added to their attractiveness and desirability. Wales duly witnessed an escalation in property values, including some of the highest price rises in any of the UK’s regions.

Property in Wales has always been historically cheaper than in England. Although the climate may be less accommodating, for people unable or unwilling to retire to Dordogne or Brittany the grey skies and quiet, blustery beaches of Wales have frequently proved attractive. The country has always been a region with a higher than average number of holiday homes, especially in the rural North and West. These areas are sometimes termed Y Fro Gymraeg, “the Welsh heartlands”, as they have traditionally been the regions where Cymraeg, the Welsh language, is most regularly spoken.

For these communities, the popularity of their housing stock is often regarded as a threat to their ability to sustain their identity. These issues were brought to national prominence in the summer of 2021 when a news story revealed only two out of 50 properties in the seaside village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, had permanent residents and that a third of the properties in the village were on the market with an average price above £1 million. The BBC journalist and newsreader Huw Edwards made his feelings about the erosion of a Cymraeg-speaking community known on Twitter, writing: “Unlike in many coastal villages in England – suffering the same issues of unaffordable housing and ‘dead’ communities – there is a critical cultural aspect in Wales which has been disregarded.”

In Wales the historic response to these perceived injustices in the housing market has been dramatic. Throughout the 1980s and much of the early 1990s, Wales experienced a campaign of burning unoccupied holiday homes.

The purpose of the fires was to draw attention to the increasing prevalence of second homes in the country. The first was on 13 December 1979.

Within four weeks eight English-owned holiday cottages had been destroyed. Over the course of the next 14 years this figure would, in the estimation of the arson squad established to investigate the burnings, rise to between 220 and 228 properties. The many groups supportive of the idea of a campaign that highlighted the crisis of second homes were drawn together by the authorities under the unhelpful, catch-all rubric of Welsh Nationalists.

Throughout the era, polls found a small majority in Wales to be in favour of the campaign. Particular attention was given to the apparent policy of causing damage to unoccupied property whilst avoiding harming members of the public. One group, Meibion Glyndŵr, the Sons of Glyndŵr, became synonymous with the burnings and its name both became familiar in the media and, due to members’ anonymity, grew into folklore. Throughout the campaign only one person was formally charged and imprisoned. Nor, mercifully, was anyone injured.

That such drastic measures were taken was indicative of the strength of feeling that the issue of second homes invoked. Other social issues also dominated the era, including the preservation of Cymraeg and the fight for its equal status in the public sphere, such as on road signs, legal and government documents, as well as the compulsory teaching of the Welsh language in schools. These demands were met by the passing of the Welsh Language Act in 1993. A decade earlier a similar demand for a Cymraeg television channel, S4C, had seen the station launched in 1982. In each case public pressure had changed the existing laws. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, an energetic, non-violent direct action group, was the driving force of these campaigns. The organisation made a similar demand for “Deddf Eido” (a property act) but regrettably in this instance, to no discernible effect.

Wales is a country in which one in three children are classified as living in poverty, a situation exacerbated by its housing crisis. Planning and housing are now devolved matters. The Senedd has the ability to pass legislation that could prompt changes in the Welsh housing market and address the issues of second homes. No one would, or should, seek a return to the dark days of the criminal damage of the Meibion Glyndŵr campaign, yet the housing situation in Wales remains volatile and, for many of the country’s population, is indicative of their own lack of agency in the communities they call home.

In the past two years, the Welsh government has discovered a self-confidence and popularity it hitherto lacked. In Wales we can now look to our government to take decisions on our behalf, the foremost of which should be to solve the country’s housing crisis. The Senedd can take inspiration from the successful social campaigns of the recent past and finally legislate a version of Deddf Eido, a property act for Wales – a law that establishes a degree of control over the country’s fraught housing market and continues Wales’ determination to follow its own path.

Brittle With Relics by Richard King is out now, published by Faber 

Photo: Only two out of 50 properties in the seaside village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys in Pembrokeshire had permanent residents (Simon Whaley Landscapes/Alamy)

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