‘People are living in vans’: Porthmadog considers vexed issue of second homes

Even on a blustery November day it is easy to see why over the years so many people have bought second homes in the harbourside town of Porthmadog in north Wales.

Wedged between the beautiful Glaslyn estuary and the towering mountains of Eryri – Snowdonia – there are wonderful landscapes at every turn as well as a bustling town centre with great cafes, pubs and independent shops.

“It is beautiful,” said Craig ab Iago, Gwynedd council’s cabinet member for housing. “But there is an emergency here, a massive wave of a problem. It’s out of control.”

That emergency is the number of homeless people, which has increased in Gwynedd by 47% in the past two years. “It’s hidden. You don’t see people sleeping rough,” said Ab Iago. “But people are sleeping on sofas, in hotels, in bed and breakfasts, in vans. It’s immoral that some people have a second home here while others don’t have one.”

Gwynedd council’s Plaid Cymru-controlled cabinet this week voted for council tax premiums to be raised to 150% next year and the £3m raised be used to tackle homelessness. The full council, which is controlled by Plaid Cymru, will make a final decision next week.

Council tax premiums on second homes in Gwynedd are currently set at 100% and the discussion has tended to focus on whether this is having any impact on the housing sales market. The rationale for introducing the premium is to free up homes for local people, to stop the hollowing out of communities, which affects the viability of the Welsh language.

But the council is now arguing that another vital issue is the impact the number of second homes is having on the rental sector. People who cannot afford to buy are renting, so the number of properties available is shrinking and homeless figures are soaring.

Related: Second-home owners in Gwynedd face 150% council tax premium

Ab Iago said the time had come to take action. “There’s no point in us just complaining as we watch our young people leave and watch our communities, language and culture die. This is about taking control.”

He has sympathy for some second-home owners, those that have come to the area for years and have links with the community, though he definitely has a problem with others who snap up homes and hire them out on sites such as Airbnb for handsome profits. “They are the ones I struggle with.”

He reels off stories of homelessness, such as the mother he knows sleeping in her mum’s living room with three children while her husband bunks down at his parents’ place. “You have to tell them they are looking at a two-year wait. It’s heartbreaking.”

Bethan (not her real name) has spent months living in B&Bs and in a budget hotel on the outskirts of Porthmadog with her baby boy. She moved back to Gwynedd, pregnant, to look after her father.

“I went to live with him but things didn’t work out,” said Bethan, who is in her mid-20s. “So I needed to find somewhere.” The council had nothing permanent so she was forced into temporary digs. “I was in the hotel for three or four months. That’s not ideal with a baby. All I had was a kettle in the room. Having to go out and find three meals a day was a challenge.”

She is now in a “holding house” inland, miles away from any family. It takes her two hours by foot and bus to reach her father. “I’m grateful to have a roof. I’m not going to whinge.” But she has no idea when she might move into a permanent home. “I’m in a top priority band and I’ve been living in a hotel with a baby. I think of the people behind me on the list. When are they going to get a home? And I wonder who the hell is in front of me. It’s crazy.”

It is striking how stoical those living in temporary accommodation are. One man who has been living in the Porthmadog Travelodge for a month said he was happy to be dry. “I’ve got a bed, got a kettle, I’m OK.”

A young Porthmadog shop worker said she was sofa-surfing with friends and had given up hope of living in the area permanently. “It’s not going to happen. It makes me sad but you have to be practical.” She thinks she will end up across the border in Manchester or Liverpool.

Heddyr Gregory, a spokesperson for Shelter Cymru, said the crisis was becoming more acute. “There are 89,000 households on the waiting list for social homes in Wales. There are even waiting lists now for temporary accommodation. More than 8,000 people are in temporary accommodation including 2,500 children.”

Gregory said landlords were selling off rented accommodation in places such as Porthmadog “in their droves”. Some fear a property crash or are being stung by interest rates rises; others are getting out before new regulations giving Welsh tenants more rights come in. They are selling to Airbnb investors and to people from outside Gwynedd who realise they can work from home anywhere, and since the pandemic, are more inclined to do so.

The window of Bob Parry estate agents in Porthmadog confirms the problem in the rented section. All the rented homes have “let agreed” plastered across them. “We have nothing available at the moment,” said Neil McLean, a senior sales negotiator. “When a property does come up we’ll have 20 applicants for it.”

But he does not believe raising the council tax premium further will work. “If you’ve got money to buy a second home you’ve got the money to pay the council tax,” he said.

Many of the businesses in Porthmadog worry that if second-home owners move out and tourism is affected, the town will suffer.

Elaine Thomas, who works at the toy shop, said visitors made the town viable. But on the other hand, her 25-year-old still lived at home. “I don’t see him moving out. There is a real shortage of houses and that needs to be addressed.”

A Welsh government spokesperson said giving local authorities the power to raise council tax premiums was one part of “a joined-up package of solutions”. The spokesperson added: “We believe that everybody has a right to a decent, affordable home to buy or to rent in their own communities so they can live and work locally. We are committed to taking immediate and radical action using the planning, property and taxation systems to achieve this.”

Some second-home owners are leaving Porthmadog. About a dozen homes on South Snowdon Wharf, where many of the flats and houses are second homes, are up for sale.

Paul Featherstone, 66, a retired fish farmer who has a second home – a one-bedroom flat on the wharf – said he was hurt that people like him were being targeted. He already pays the 100% premium, meaning his bill is £3,000 a year – double what a permanent resident pays. “I can live with that,” he said. “I see that as my extra contribution.”

But further rises – council tax premiums for second homes could be raised to 300% under new rules introduced by the Welsh government – rankle. “I’ve been coming here since 1969. I love it and have always felt part of the community. These places were built as second homes so I haven’t taken a place away from a local person. This talk of further rises makes me feel like I’m an outsider. That makes me sad. It’s not fair.”