Loo with a view – crazy Cornish property market leaves the locals locked out

The outlook is one of increasing desperation for people in Cornwall seeking an affordable home.

A Kent-based property auctioneer is offering “an exciting and rare opportunity” to acquire a small stone hut that used to house a public toilet off the B3306 near Morvah, in the far west of Cornwall. It is putting a guide price of £20–£25,000 (plus fees) on this ‘accommodation’, though it has to be said that the ladies and gents facilities have seen better days.

Why would anyone wish to take up this unusual offer? Well, as the estate agent enthuses, the dilapidated toilets are “sitting on approximately 0.09 hectares (0.22 acres) and enjoying truly superb coastal views”. Even more enticingly, they offer “the potential for a variety of schemes, subject to all necessary consents being obtainable”.

Exactly what this “variety of schemes” might comprise is not explained, but it is unlikely to include restoration of the conveniences to their former glory for the benefit of any passers-by with an urgent need to relieve themselves.

400,000 eviction notices across the UK

In other news this week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that around a million private tenants in England, Wales and Scotland are now in fear of losing their homes, and that 400,000 of these have already received an eviction notice or been told by their landlords to expect one.

Rachelle Earwaker, the organisation’s economist, said “We’re really worried that there will be a wave of homelessness coming through”, explaining that many renters in low-income work such as hospitality had built up rent arrears as a result of losing their livelihoods during the pandemic.

The situation is acutely urgent, because from 1 June the government’s temporary ban on forced evictions comes to an end and court bailiffs will once again be allowed to turn families onto the streets.

There is already plentiful evidence to show that people in rented accommodation in Cornwall have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. In the first two months of this year, Citizens Advice Cornwall reported a 77 per cent increase in people seeking one-to-one advice on issues relating to the private rented sector compared to the same period in 2020, outstripping the national rise of 40 per cent.

In March of last year, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick promised that nobody losing income because of the pandemic would be forced out of their home. But from 1 June  that is precisely what will be happening.

Cornwall is one of the poorest areas

Cornwall is one of the poorest areas of the UK, with large numbers of people working in hospitality and other low-income sectors with little job security. And it has some of the most unaffordable housing in the country relative to local incomes.

A few figures are enough to illustrate this. The median salary in Cornwall in 2020 was £25,600, as against the UK median of £31,500. The average selling price of a house in Cornwall between February 2020 and February 2021 was £315,591, up 18 per cent on the previous year’s figure of £266,897. The average price of a three-bedroom rental property in Cornwall is £1,156 a month; for four-bedrooms it is £1,625.

Even before the pandemic, many families on low incomes struggled to afford anything like a market rent in Cornwall. And this situation has been made worse, not just by the loss of income that so many people here have seen in the last year, but also by the surge in interest in Cornish properties – both to buy and to rent – from incomers.

This has been driven partly by the pandemic leading city-dwellers and commuters to discover that they can easily work from home, but also by the government’s decision to suspend stamp duty on property sales. Although this was supposedly intended to make properties more affordable, its effect has been to fuel a further escalation in prices.

Locals priced out

For several months now, the local news in Cornwall has been full of stories of houses selling within minutes of going on the market, of agents receiving hundreds of enquiries on every property that goes on sale, and of would-be renters from outside Cornwall offering to pay an entire year’s rent in advance. Local people, even many on higher-than-average incomes, have been almost entirely priced out of the market.

Sharon Harris from Penzance, for instance, is desperate to move from the two-bedroom flat where she lives with her four children, including baby twins. She told ITN:

“We started looking for bigger properties but we were in lockdown and there wasn’t much around, then in August I got served notice. We’re struggling, there’s sometimes six of us living here.

“We just want a family home. We’re really desperate, twins sharing a cot, both nearly grown out; we’ve had to get rid of our dining room table and chairs. It’s really tough, it’s week after week.”

Whoever buys the public conveniences near Morvah will clearly not be doing so in order to turn them into affordable housing for people like Sharon. Perhaps they’ll want them simply for the – admittedly magnificent – view, though this is something they could enjoy without any need for ownership. More likely, they’ll be hoping that the government’s relaxation of planning laws will allow them to erect a holiday home or a development property to be sold to wealthy incomers.

No help from government

In 2017 disgraced former prime minister David Cameron splashed out a cool £2m on a holiday home with a sea view at Trebetherick, near Rock. At prices like that, £20–25,000 might prove a canny investment, though there would be strong local objections to any such ‘development’ in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And, as Des Hannigan has pointed out, the seller of the toilets would appear to be Cornwall Council, and for it to allow this would be “a blatant betrayal of the new Tory Cornwall Council’s alleged ‘guardianship’ of Cornwall’s heritage, history, and landscape ‘for all’”.

What’s certain is that the government has done nothing to help those desperate to find secure and affordable housing in Cornwall, and that with the resumption of bailiff evictions from 1 June the situation for many of these people is about to become a great deal worse.