Memo from Devon – 3

After my celebration of Devon food, a reminder of the other side of the issue, as a food bank appears in the local Co-op. Startling, perhaps, in an area generally thought of as affluent, a place where people go for their holidays, a place with unemployment under the national average. But it is all too true that there is another, less prosperous side to the Devon coin, partly because Devon’s two main economic strengths, agriculture and tourism, are characterised by relatively low paid jobs, which also often have a heavy seasonal identity.

In 2011, the last year for which the country council offers figures, the average Devon house price was over ten times the  average Devon income, and it is certainly difficult to believe that things will have significantly improved in this respect since. Devon’s housing stock is heavily depleted by holiday companies owning properties in their hundreds, and by people who own holiday homes and only actually occupy them for months, perhaps even weeks, over the whole year.

A local decorator who has done a number of jobs for us over the last ten years once described to me what had happened in a house just up the road from us, a big place divided into three flats, all of them owned by second homers.  A burst pipe in the top flat had caused water to flood down into the two below, and the bottom one in particular was a sorry mess which needed total re-decoration from scratch. He estimated the whole repair job on all three flats would finish up costing about £25,000. And the flat owners, even when informed of the disaster, simply wanted him to carry on and sort it out without bothering to come and look at it.

Second home owners will argue that they actually contribute to local economies positively, by providing work (such as massive decoration repairs!) and spending lots of money during their holidays, and doubtless they have a point, but the aspirations of the local young to own homes in the areas where they’ve grown up are not helped by a chronic shortage of available housing shoving the prices up, and creating a situation where even so-called ‘affordable housing’ is out of reach of many local people. Hotels, pubs, care homes and the public sector more often than not don’t offer the kind of wages which allow people to save up for huge deposits, nor do they leave much for daily living after the mountainous mortgage payments have been made. Perhaps the food banks are not so odd after all.

It seems in Devon, as in so many other places, the year after year annual pay cuts which result from wages failing to keep up with inflation mean the holes in the safety nets grow wider and wider, and even in holiday land, more and more people are falling through them.

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