WITH the arrival of spring, walkers, cyclists and sightseers start appearing outside my windows.

Often I’ll spot someone taking a photo of the village green, with its white-painted cottages and benches circling the trees. Along with others, our house probably features as the backdrop to countless holiday snaps of what, to day-trippers, looks like the idyllic bucolic life: a place in the country, far from fumes, in tranquil, leafy surroundings.

Most of the village lives here all year round, but there are a few weekenders, and rental properties. Not so many that the place feels empty Monday to Thursday or in the depths of February, but enough to remind us that for some, escaping the urban grind is achievable only when time permits.

Finding a bolt hole in the boondocks is the ultimate dream for many who live and work in the city. They long for the day when they can casually mention their ‘place in the country’, where they go to recharge their batteries. When the Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, was reported for visiting her weekend cottage in Fife during lockdown, it seemed that as much of the fury was fuelled by resentment of those with second homes as by her flouting of the rules.

Now, the SNP has announced it is considering taking steps, if it wins next month’s election, to curb such acquisitions. In areas especially popular with tourists, such as Argyll and Bute and the Western Isles, the rapacious buying up of desirable houses by those who live elsewhere, is becoming problematic.

Locals, especially the young, are finding it increasingly hard to remain in the area because they cannot find accommodation. Elsewhere in the UK, the scarcity is so acute that in honeypots, such as St Ives in Cornwall, residents have voted overwhelmingly for measures banning second homes.

Should the SNP’s proposed tightening of regulations come to pass, this will augment steps already taken by the majority of councils, to discourage what you might call two-timers. These include axing the council tax discount for a second property, and imposing an additional 4% dwelling supplement on top of the Land and Buildings Transaction tax.

You’d think this would suffice to make the starry-eyed townie reconsider. But while it seems reasonable to attempt to protect local interest, it does not seem right legally to prevent anyone buying a home wherever they want. To impose draconian rules on how and where people can live smacks of a repressive state. Nobody points accusingly to Scandinavia, with its simmerhus culture, or to Russia, with its forest dachas, where Muscovites and St Peterburgers retreat in July and August. Rather than being frowned upon, this seasonal migration is seen as healthy, allowing people to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Years ago I had friends who owned an Edinburgh townhouse and a Perthshire cottage, where they decamped every Friday. Their ritual was as methodical as a biscuit production line: cases packed, car loaded, groceries in the boot and children corralled by five pm, followed by the dash up the M9, and through the door of their spartan home, just in time for dinner. For them, this was not a luxury but a way of life. They tolerated the urban week and long office hours, longing for Friday evenings and the house with the outside compost toilet. Weekends flew past walking, riding and catching up with friends in the nearest pub. Sunday afternoons were spent trying to forget that by night-time they would be back in the city.

Of course you need money to live like this, but being well-off is not a crime. Despite that, there is a mood of judgementalism over those who are comfortable, as if it is the outward manifestation of moral bankruptcy. As the problems with rural housing intensify, however, it seems likely that responsible second-home hunters will begin looking further afield, in order not to encroach on those struggling to find a home near their work.

HeraldScotland: SkyeSkye

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Lack of affordable rural housing is especially acute in picture-postcard areas such as Syke. Yet until demand for country living shrinks – and I suspect that within a few years of Covid 19 the allure of remote locations will significantly diminish – there has to be a better and more democratic way of ensuring houses for all than dictating who can buy what and where.

To insist that a second home in the country is acceptable only if it is a primary residence makes no sense if it has been bought as a weekend retreat.

And how would primary be defined? If the owner lives there most weekends, and on holidays, they will become part of the community and contribute to the local economy, like everyone else. On paper, however, they will still spend more nights in the year elsewhere, and by that definition will fall foul of any ban. Perhaps if anything is outlawed it should be turning what could be a home into a holiday business, rented by the week. Yet even that proscription feels unfair, shackling a sector of the economy that in every other respect is left to regulate itself.

Blame for the dearth of affordable housing cannot be laid at the door of second home owners. Rather, the problem stretches back decades. Lack of cheap, high quality property, to rent or buy, has dogged the countryside from one government to the next. Even if all second homes were put up for sale tomorrow – there are about 25,000 – the problem would persist. Fashion is currently playing a part in worsening the trend, but the core issue, the very heart of the case, is long-term neglect of the rural population’s needs.

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Rather than tie up the countryside in bureaucratic and legalistic red tape, government should compensate for its previous lack of foresight and provision by devising a coherent and robust and sensitive rural housing policy. Designed to weather the vagaries of the market and economy, it should above all protect the environment, keeping the countryside in its original state. This, surely, is the only way to build a sustainable rural sector.

Otherwise, to start slapping injunctions on property buying sits uneasily with a country proud of its progressive attitude towards land ownership, not least of which is our right to roam.

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