It is that time of year again. As a North Devon native that still resides in her home-county - albeit on the opposite coast - summer is a season of two sides.
On one, there are (at least a couple of) spells of completely stunning weather and there is nowhere on Earth we would rather be. The wild and rugged landscapes put on their best ‘come hither’ hues. The sea is blue. The soggy footpaths we have spent months trudging along are suddenly bursting with wildflowers and simply walking amongst them turn into an enjoyable leisure activity - as opposed to the arduous commute they are throughout the winter.
On the other, we’re not the only people that appreciate and look forward to this special time. Tourism is a huge contributor to the local economy and the population of Devon and Cornwall soars above its out of season levels during the summer months. This vital economic boost is countered with a slew of problems including litter and traffic - but perhaps most interestingly - constant tiffs on social media pages between visitors looking for a proper Devon welcome and local residents who feel their home besmirched.
South West counties such as Devon and Cornwall are areas of undeniable natural beauty, steeped in unique history and strong community. I am extremely lucky and overtly proud to call Appledore, North Devon, my home village. Appledore is historically famous for shipbuilding and renowned as a UK holiday destination, promising colourful houses, excellent pubs on narrow streets, and the best clotted cream ice cream you will ever encounter (I’m looking at you, Hocking’s). It is really no surprise that so many people choose to visit the village and purchase second homes there.
With settlement history going back to the Bronze Age, and medieval records of farming, fishing, tin and cloth exports, Devon experienced decline and depopulation during the 19th century. Throw in the rise of railway and this is where tourism as an industry began to flourish and take root as an undeniable contributor of the economy that we still see today.
Once, during a summer that I was home from university and working at a family friend’s Appledore-based business, I decided to pop down to my local – The Beaver Inn – and have a glass of wine in my favourite spot in the beer garden. On the table next to me was a middle-aged man and what I assumed to be his children, who appeared to be around my age at early to mid-twenties. As a world class earwig, I could hear everything that was being said:
“You know, houses here aren’t even that expensive.”
“We’ve had the house here for years, you don’t have to visit all the time.”
“If you like it here, you should just buy a second home. Even if you only use it for two weeks a year, at least you have it there ready.”
Given that I’ve known the owners of The Beaver Inn for my entire life, I used to work there as a teenager, and I know how important hospitality and customer experience is to them, I took my glass of wine inside to sit at the bar. I knew if I engaged this man and what he was saying, it wouldn’t have ended well.
Factors such as second home ownership can cause house prices to increase to a level that is unattainable to the majority of local people. Properties remaining empty for months of the year lead to reductions in the provision of services, and depopulation - especially with younger age groups. I am one of many, many younger locals that has felt the need to move away to find opportunities, careers and affordable housing.
With the tourism industry comes seasonal work and casual contracts at mostly minimal pay. During the winter, the streets are quiet, and work dries up. This situation is simply not enough to sustain someone just starting out in the world. I made the decision to go to university in Plymouth to gain a degree, and now live there working in the exciting and rewarding world of social enterprise and community business. Had I stayed at home working three different part time jobs over days, evenings and weekends for minimum wage, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.
At the time of writing, the South West has weathered Covid-19 with some of the least reports of cases and deaths, yet is pegged to be one of the hardest hit areas in terms of job losses post-Covid. The area is perhaps at times unhealthily reliant on seasonal tourism, and don't the tourists love to let us know about it. If I had a quid for every time I saw a Facebook post wherein a visitor exclaimed “you need our money” or “you wouldn’t have an economy without us”, I could afford a home in Appledore.
Certain tourists often see the local people of tourism-heavy areas like Devon and Cornwall as ‘little villagers’ that 'just don't like visitors', and although I’m sure the latter is the case for some locals, tourists that are respectful are generally welcomed with open arms. Any animosity towards visitors that I have witnessed is usually born out of a lack of regard for local issues. With scenes such as those in Salcombe, Devon, Covid-19 has been a particular catalyst for bringing these problems to the surface. Lack of respect for social distancing, wearing masks and other pandemic related necessities are fuelling the fire for local residents feeling trapped and frustrated in their situation.
Covid-19 - although a dire situation that has seen death and isolation of families and loved ones on a scale not seen in most of our living memories - has brought to the forefront the importance of community and buying local. With supply chains strained, restrictions on how often, or how many from a household can visit a supermarket plus limits on the purchase of certain items, it has never been a better time to support local business.
With pubs largely closed and everyone stuck inside, breweries in Plymouth such as Roam Brewing Co. have offered home deliveries of craft beers. New businesses such as Appledore Mussels have delivered hand-picked produce to the homes of local people. Serene Skye has sold freshly caught fish on Appledore Quay. Market Street Kitchen ran a scheme delivering cream teas to NHS workers within the village. The Milkiosk in Bideford that produces and pasteurises milk within a 25 metre distance has seen unprecedented demand.
What does this tell us, in an area seen to be reliant on tourism, that so many small businesses can continue trading during a lockdown that saw the area relatively free of visitors?
Community has power.
Though my job as a Programme Coordinator at Real Ideas Organisation, I have the absolute privilege of working on programmes such as Empowering Places here in Plymouth that support the development of community businesses. A community business is a locally rooted organisation trading for the benefit of, and accountable to, its local community, while social enterprise is more of an umbrella term for businesses that generate profit as well as creating positive social and environmental impacts.
Plymouth is a hotspot for this kind of community enterprise, with around 200 organisations in the city employing some 9,000 people, with a combined turnover of over £580 million. This business model is not only beneficial to a city setting; I recently worked on a project with Torridge District Council in hopes to turn Torrington’s currently-closed Globe Hotel into a community-owned social enterprise, creating permanent jobs for the town and using only local suppliers. There is an exciting bid to the Future High Street Fund that, should it be successful, would see a community owned development in Bideford town centre offering small business lots, flexible working spaces and housing as well as capacity for culture and events. The new North Devon Enterprise Centre development in Barnstaple that, once completed, will provide accommodation for start-up businesses.
These are extremely promising steps from local councils to boost the economy with a new focus on entrepreneurship and enterprising activity. Tourism will always be part of the fabric in the South West, but Covid-19 has thrown the need for community business into stark focus as we attempt to build back better.
Here in Plymouth, through the Empowering Places programme funded by Power to Change, we have a growing network of organisations that are effecting real change within the city and doing so in creative ways. For example, Nudge Community Builders are a community benefit society that work in one of the most vibrant but overlooked areas to bring new functions and life to old and disused buildings. Their building, The Clipper, used to be an all-night pub on a street famous for debauchery and lewd behaviour – but is now an active small market hub for local businesses to trade and take part in pop-up events. Stiltskin Theatre Co. have taken an abandoned mustard gas decontamination unit and turned it into a children’s theatre, with a sliding scale for ticket prices so that local disadvantaged children can get involved in the arts.
There are so many others to mention, but the point is; business doesn’t have to be a corporate driven, money-making evil that does little to benefit the local community around it, and tourism doesn’t have to be the be-all-and-end-all of our local economy.
We should not feel trapped under those who think their need for a jolly is more important than the residents stuck inside, feeling like they can’t visit places within their own home village due to the crowds. Nor should we be told that if we don’t like what becomes of our home during the summer months, then we shouldn’t live there at all.
There are things that can be done by tourists to make their visit a positive one that supports the community:
1) Be respectful. Sounds simple, but a little reading up and understanding towards local issues and tensions goes a really long way.
2) Most people understand this one, but for those at the back: do not treat a destination as a theme park. I once arrived at my Nan’s cottage in Irsha street to find two visitors peering through her window, hands cupped against the glass to get a better view. “May I help you?” I asked. “We’re just trying to see into this house.” they replied. “Can you not? That’s my Nan’s living room. Bit rude.” The shock on their faces made it pretty clear they never expected there to be actual, real-life residents in this beautiful street. Although we tend to consider ourselves a friendly bunch down here, it is not the responsibility of ordinary local people to roll out the red carpet. You are visiting their home, not an attraction.
3) Ditch the supermarket. Instead of loading up on cheap items from a nearby chain, buy local produce! Devon & Cornwall are full of amazing fruit & veg shops, butchers and markets, as well as independent stores selling items from the area – take advantage of this.
4) Engage with the community ahead of time. Join a social media group or forum and ask questions about favourite local businesses and upcoming events like live music and markets.
5) Reconsider buying a second home. Houses that remain empty for months of the year do nothing to help the community and often distort market price. Although holiday lets can increase visitor numbers and seasonal trade, which is preferable than those houses occupied by their owners for merely a few weeks a year, the second home issue can have a devastating effect on the area and the local people in it.
With Brexit, ongoing austerity and a global pandemic seeing inequality on the rise across the country, a movement of locally rooted, independent enterprises and activists is emerging; there is no better time to be having conversations about local level action and community power. With the right prioritising of local issues, a drive to steer change, and sustainable, respectful tourism, we have an opportunity here.
If you are interested in community business, how to create change for your community or just looking for more information and stories like those listed above; Power to Change have moved this year’s Community Business Festival online with a range of free talks and events from organisations across the country. To view the itinerary and browse events, click here.
For our upcoming webinar partnered with the RSA and New Economics Foundation on the effects of Covid-19 on economy, community & education, click here