After Cornish staycation summer, locals fear a winter of evictions

Like many other seaside towns across the country at this time of year, the streets of Newquay in November are a pretty drab affair. Ice-cream kiosks are locked up for the winter, and the town’s famous beaches – where, in summer, holidaymakers jostle for space – are now empty.

It was one of the busiest summers on record for Cornwall, as Covid restrictions to overseas destinations made it a holiday hotspot. But now that the tourists have left, the impact of the staycation boom on the county is becoming abundantly clear as it faces up to a homelessness crisis out of all proportion to anything it has witnessed before.

“Every day we have more people coming to us,” says Monique Collins, dishing out another portion of meatballs into one of hundreds of plastic containers lined up waiting to be filled. From the Sandy Lodge Hotel in Newquay, she runs the DISC charity that provides support and meals for people living in hotels, B&Bs and temporary accommodation all across Cornwall. “People are being evicted because their landlord either wants to turn their property into a holiday let or because they want to sell up because property prices are so high. There is no accommodation – and the situation is getting worse because of benefit cuts and rising energy bills. I am really worried about how families here are going to manage this winter. It’s a catastrophe.”

Property prices in Cornwall have risen by 20% in some areas this year, and estate agents are continuing to push hard for more sales. One Falmouth agent sent out leaflets last week urging property owners to make the most of “an unrepeatable opportunity”, boasting that 81% of its clients were from outside the area looking for second homes and were prepared to pay more than locals. Holiday lettings have also boomed, with many houses in Newquay renting out for double what they did last year. Landlords can often earn more in a few weeks than they can in a year from a long-term let.

With second homes and holiday lets swallowing up housing supply, local tenants have been left facing eviction but with nowhere to go. “Trying even just to get a viewing on a property, it’s horrendous,” said Zoe, a mother of three who didn’t want to give her surname. She is being evicted after 12 years in her home in Truro as her landlord wants to sell up. “There are hundreds of people viewing the same one. All you hear is ‘no, no no’, because we have kids and we have a dog. The agents make you feel completely worthless. All I want to do is find somewhere to live for my family.”

Cornwall Council have installed 21 ‘Bunkabins’ for single homeless people in the grounds of New County Hall in Truro.
Cornwall Council have installed 21 ‘Bunkabins’ for single homeless people in the grounds of New County Hall in Truro. Photograph: Hugh R Hastings/Getty

Patrick Winterton, 36, a gardener in Falmouth, was evicted from his long-term rented home in October because the owner wanted to change it to a holiday let. “It’s not even like the house was near the beach or had a sea view. It’s just in suburban Falmouth,” he said.

He is now renting a caravan but it’s not cheap, costing him nearly half his monthly salary. “I am one of the lucky ones because I found somewhere. But maybe next year this will be on Airbnb too. What I’d do then, I don’t know.”

Hettie and Chris Bevington have been told to leave their home with their three young children on 4 January. “Could there be a worse time of year to have to leave? We’ve lived here for three years and never missed a rent payment,” said Hettie, 38, a care worker. “It used to be that Redruth was where people who do normal jobs like us could afford to live in Cornwall. But rents have gone up so much here too.”

Chris, 58, works for Cornwall Council, and since the pandemic often works from home. “How am I supposed to work from home if I don’t have one? The council says they can’t help us until we are evicted. So do we just sit here, and let our children watch us being forcibly evicted by bailiffs? I don’t want to put them through that but I am not sure what else we can do,” he said. “Our neighbour is being evicted too. She’s in her 60s and has just started chemotherapy. Where is she going to go on 4 January?”

St Petrocs, another Cornish homelessness charity, is already seeing higher numbers than it has done in years, and is gearing up for an even busier winter. “People come to us when they have just been made homeless and have no idea what to do next,” said Dave Brown, from the charity. “We help them work through the options available to them. Unfortunately, those options have become fewer and fewer.”

Acorn, a community union representing renters, said it is seeing a wave of eviction notices that will come into effect in January. “It might be a property owner’s legal right to end a tenancy and sell their property, but is it a moral right?” said John Whitcher, who volunteers for Acorn. “It’s doing untold damage to people’s lives, particularly children.”

The spectacular Headland Hotel, the setting for the film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches starring Anjelica Huston, makes for an unlikely vanguard in the fight against Cornwall’s housing crisis. But the luxury five-star hotel is hiring local people who have become homeless.

“In about March this year, we realised there was a major problem with housing in the area, as we were struggling to recruit staff because of accommodation shortages,” said Veryan Palmer, director of the hotel.

She eventually found a surf lodge to house employees but still needed staff. Collins suggested interviewing some of the people coming to DISC for help, and now nine people previously homeless and out of work have permanent jobs and a place to live. “One woman came who had been sleeping in her car. She burst into tears in the interview because she hadn’t had a shower in a week. We stopped the interview immediately, took her to the hotel spa with a bag of toiletries and let her have a bit of time to feel herself again,” said Palmer. She got the job.

Visitor to the Salvation Army’s weekly drop-in morning in Redruth.
Visitor to the Salvation Army’s weekly drop-in morning in Redruth. Charities are seeing increasing numbers of people in need. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty

Another young man hired by the Headland was sleeping in a tent, having been evicted so that his landlord could let his home on Airbnb. “Taking people on in these circumstances raised a few eyebrows at first with other staff. But I think it’s been eye-opening for our whole team to realise how you may only be a couple of steps away from homelessness yourself.”

Tucked in a wooded hollow behind County Hall in Truro lies one of the council’s short-term solutions to the housing crisis. It is designed for single adults who would otherwise be sleeping rough, and has 21 cabins each with a bed, desk, fridge and microwave, and a bathroom with shower, sink and toilet. The site has 24-hour security, a laundry facility, and an orchard with picnic seating.

“For some people, just having their own front door makes a real difference,” said Barbara Lashmar, who oversees the site. “It’s not perfect, and no one is saying people should stay here for ever, but it is a stepping stone off the street.”

Olly Monk, Cornwall Council portfolio holder for housing, says the council is doing all it can to end the housing crisis. “We’ve got an immediate issue with families who are being threatened with homelessness. It must be absolutely terrifying for them,” he said.

The council is buying caravan parks as well as developments of modular homes that can be erected quickly. It is also buying new-build houses straight from developers, announcing last week the purchase of 130 new homes, 100 of which would otherwise have gone on the open market. “This shows our commitment to do whatever is necessary to provide homes that people in our communities can afford,” said Monk.

“We are building and buying up as much social housing as we can. But we need Westminster to give us more powers. We want every property’s primary use to be residential, and if there is any deviation from that, then the owners have to apply to us for permission. We want to close the loophole that allows second homes that are holiday lets to not pay rates. And we want the power to put a surcharge on council tax for second homes or holiday lets.”

He also wants landlords and estate agents to “think twice”. “They should look at their conscience, and look at their communities, and think about where their sons and daughters are going to live in the future.”

In the meantime, the Bevingtons and their neighbour are planning a big Christmas this year, despite the looming eviction. “This will be our last one here in our home. We’re going to have everyone, as who knows where we will be living next year.”