Homelessness, unemployment and soaring food bank use have all become widespread across Cornwall – but if you’re staying at the Carbis Bay Hotel in St Ives later this week, you wouldn’t know it.
Against a backdrop of pomp and fanfare at the upcoming G7 Summit – an annual convention hosting leaders from the world’s most advanced economies which will this year be held in Cornwall – is a tale of two cities, where extreme poverty straddles unimaginable wealth.
Ahead of the summit, which commences on Friday (June 11), Unite has called on summit host, prime minister Boris Johnson, to make good on his ‘levelling up’ promise by committing to a five-year programme to revive the tourist-dependent, Covid-ravaged Cornish economy.
Such a programme has never been more urgent at a time when Cornwall is facing an acute affordable housing crisis that a councillor recently described as an out of control “inferno”.
Councillor Andrew Mitchell, who was previously in charge of housing at Cornwall Council, said, “It is like somebody has had a bonfire going for a while and has now thrown three gallons of petrol on it and it is now an inferno.”
Last week, the Guardian highlighted how house prices have soared in Cornwall over the last year, pushing out local residents who can no longer to afford to live in the area.
St Mawes, for example, had the biggest increase in average house prices out of any seaside town in the UK, soaring by nearly 50 per cent to more than £500,000 over the last year. Meanwhile, in Padstow, also in Cornwall, the average house price now stands at an eye-watering £616,000.
Cornwall’s housing crisis is being fuelled in part by second-home buyers, including many from London who are escaping the capital since they are now working from home. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that landlords are increasingly prioritising short-term tourists instead of long-term tenants.
An analysis by the Guardian found that in Cornwall last week, there were more than 10,000 active listings on Airbnb, a holiday rentals site, compared to only 69 rental properties for long- or short-term let on the popular lettings site Rightmove.
DISC Newquay, a charity supporting homeless people, found that the housing crisis has become so grave that even those who previously lived comfortably were being forced to resort to food banks.
The charity said that before the pandemic, it was providing 60 meals on a typical Monday or Friday. Now, this has risen to 4,000 meals on an average Monday and 3,000 on an average Friday.
DISC Newquay manager Monique Collins said she believed that in Newquay alone, there were 500 people who didn’t have a home.
“I’ve got a pregnant woman who is sofa-surfing,” she told the Guardian. “A hospital porter and his wife. I’ve had a girl text me today saying she has to leave by the weekend. People are being turned out because their landlord wants to turn the property into an Airbnb.”
Cornwall has suffered a significant number of job losses in various sectors amid the Covid-19 crisis — over the last year since the pandemic began, Unite has highlighted job losses including those at Cornwall Council, Cornwall Airport, St Austell Brewery, the Eden Project and PALL Aerospace.
Last October, Unite accused Cornwall’s six Conservative MPs, including environment secretary George Eustice, of ‘failing to go in to bat’ for the county after Cornwall Council said it would axing 400 jobs as a result of Whitehall’s failure to pay for the costs incurred by Covid-19, leaving the council with a £40 million deficit to fund statutory services.
But while the pandemic has ramped up economic inequalities in Cornwall, the region has long suffered from high poverty rates. When the pandemic first started, Cornwall already laid claim to 17 of the most deprived wards in the country.
In an area were insecure hospitality jobs dominate the local economy, wages for years have lagged far behind the national average. What’s more, Cornwall isn’t simply poor by UK standards – it’s the second most deprived area in northern Europe. In fact, the county of Cornwall, an enclave of poverty in the sixth richest country in the world, is poorer than the post-Soviet bloc nation of Lithuania.
Unite has said while the G7 Summit will generate tens of millions of pounds in much-needed income for the area, the union urged UK politicians to ensure that the Summit leaves a lasting positive legacy for a region that has been blighted for decades by poverty and underinvestment.
Commenting, Unite regional officer Deborah Hopkins said, “The G7 summit in Cornwall is welcome, with the estimated £50 million that this gathering of world leaders will generate.
“However, it should not be seen as a ‘one-off’, but must be used as a springboard for Boris Johnson to announce a five-year programme to ‘level up’ the Cornish economy.
“G7 represents the richest countries in the world and Johnson should be called out by the media covering the summit about his many failings in regards to the economic ‘hit’ that Cornwall and the rest of the UK has suffered under his woeful and blundering stewardship over the last two years,” she added.
“He can’t be allowed to shine in the summit spotlight and pretend to his fellow leaders that everything is rosy in the UK.
“Behind the image of picture postcard villages, there is real economic and social distress on a vast scale, with homelessness rising as local people can’t compete with incomers buying homes ‘to escape’ Covid. Food bank use has soared since the pandemic started in March 2020,” Hopkins continued.
“The lavishness of the summit is an ugly contrast to the daily reality for many Cornish people trying to survive on poverty wages in an economic landscape where quality jobs to provide future secure careers for young people are scarce and anxiety about the future is rife.
“The G7 presents a unique opportunity to focus on Cornwall’s future and what it means for our young people seeking work and an affordable place to live,” she went on to say.
“For the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda to have real relevance, Johnson and his ministers can no longer treat Cornwall as a pretty backwater – a key example of this neglect is Whitehall’s failure to pay for the costs incurred by Covid-19, leaving the council with a £40 million deficit to fund statutory services.
“The summit offers a great opportunity to reverse this policy that has seen Cornwall pushed to the margins in so many ways for far too long.”
By Hajera Blagg