I had one of my regular trips back to my native Cornwall this week and was forced once again to reflect that it is no longer the county I knew and grew up in.
Barely a village still looks the way it did then. Between them the planners and the second-home owners have brought about massive changes – changes which in some cases have bleached all the character and distinctiveness out of settlements which were once noted for their individual charm and attraction.
Very few ancient settlements have not been scarred beyond recognition with sprawling ranks of new homes – in many cases built as a result of the owners of large estates turning perfectly good fields over to housing to relieve their temporary cash shortages.
Village after village announces itself with rows of identical, white-painted houses crammed as closely together as the planning regulations and human decency will allow.
Meanwhile all the old, traditional homes they surround will stand empty most of the year because they have been bought for week-end and holiday retreats, the relentless scramble for them pushing market prices way beyond the reach of most young couples.
Cornwall, of course, isn’t the only county to have suffered like this: neighbouring Devon is almost as badly affected. But wherever these changes are happening I find it impossible to understand why the authorities are so ready to sacrifice the food-producing resource represented by a field rather than applying themselves a little more enthusiastically to identifying and using brownfield sites to meet national housing targets.
So many villages are now suffering from the same ‘doughnut’ effect as larger towns: an encircling belt of housing estates with virtually nothing happening in the centre because the local shop has had to close for lack of trade and – in many cases – the pub has gone for the same reason.
I knew where I was going to find all the second-home owners this Easter week-end: in one other of the large supermarkets, spending money which, apart from paying the wages of a couple of dozen part-time staff would be electronically whisked out of the region as soon as it was rung up at the till.
I see Defra has been criticised by the Lords for failing to fulfil its obligations to the rural community, and what has been allowed to happen to local communities in the South West is just one example.
If the department had been doing its job it would have intervened to ensure a proper, sustainable balance between permanent and second homes and local authorities would have been able to use business rates paid by the multiple retailers to relieve the financial pressure on traditional village shops and keep them trading.
The more the rate of house building is allowed to race away, the more we allow featureless estates which could have been transplanted from the Midlands or the Home Counties to be plonked on prominent hilltop sites the more we risk losing the unique character of the South