Post-pandemic risk of ‘ghost towns’ in Northumberland

Parts of Northumberland risk becoming ‘ghost towns’ if bosses can’t get to grips with a housing crisis in the county, it’s been claimed.

By James Harrison
Tuesday, 31st August 2021, 11:42 am
Updated Tuesday, 31st August 2021, 1:39 pm
Coun Guy Renner-Thompson at Seahouses.
Coun Guy Renner-Thompson at Seahouses.

A work-from-home revolution coupled with a rise in staycations driven by the coronavirus pandemic has made the county one of the most in demand areas of the UK, attracting everyone from tourists to city slickers desperate to escape to the country.

But concerns are growing about the impact the boom is having, with fears growing that if resign prices force established families out, businesses in the region may also suffer.

“You could end up with ghost towns if something can’t be done,” said Guy Renner-Thompson, Northumberland County Councillor for Bamburgh.

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“The amount of holiday homes in Beadnell, if you drive through in winter there’s barely a light on, you end up with just a seasonal village – even the shop shuts in winter.

“From there you can end up in a downward spiral where you end up with a non-community of second home owners and seasonal visitors.”

For Coun Renner-Thompson, complaints about the cost of living and housing in his part of the county have been a constant since he was elected in 2017 and for as long as he can remember before then.

But he believes the issue has been ‘accelerated’ by the pandemic, with his inbox groaning under the weight of as many emails about the problem in the last six months as he received in the previous four year.

For Justin Mathews, owner of Hotspur Residential, in Alnwick, a rise in investors seeking holiday homes and workers liberated from their offices thanks to flexible work-from-home arrangements has fuelled a boom in lettings.

He estimates this pincer movement has fuelled a surge of up to 25 per cent in rent costs in the county since the pandemic started last year

“What I’ve really noticed is an uplift in demand for bigger properties for people to rent,” he said.

“We’ve had people relocating to Northumberland from [the South East and Midlands], but they’re not necessarily people with families, just people who want to move.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s a trend that’s here to stay, but I also don’t think it’s a bubble that’s going to burst – I think the market will slow down, it has to.”

Another trend spotted by Mathews is landlords taking over former council flats to use as holiday lets, something which has also been worrying the county council’s Labour opposition leader, Scott Dickinson. He has also seen his casework dominated in recent months by families being forced out of their homes by rising rents. In some instances, tenants have occupied their flats for up to 10 years, but now face having to start afresh in a new community.

And the problem is leading to growing fears that a housing problem could become an economic one if it is not addressed.

He said: “I worry that all the development in Northumberland will be bought up by people from outside the area and create a bubble where young people won’t be able to live where they grew up.

“I’ve been talking to hospitality businesses in the county who can’t fill the roles they have because the young people have left to find somewhere to live.”