One wouldn’t expect to see a six-metre-tall witch in a quaint South Oxfordshire village. Nor to watch her be carried through the lanes, draped in branches and vines, to be ceremonially burned. This was not a celebration, but a protest — against the aristocratic owner of Mapledurham Estate’s decision to evict one of his long-term tenants. And it is not a scene from the 17th century, but from last November.
The witch is Esme Boggart. She represents a new collective established to campaign against no-fault evictions, and to support the families affected by them. In this case, the owner of the estate had commissioned an architect to refurbish the cottage. But, when the architect recommending demolishing and rebuilding the house instead, the tenants were handed their notice. A family of seven, they had lived on the estate for 26 years. “The owners of this property don’t live here,” reads Esme Boggart’s campaign literature. “They don’t know our community.”
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Esme Boggart, in contrast, stands for “people who belong to a landscape, but don’t own an inch of it”. The people behind the protest use her name instead of their own because they are afraid to lose their own homes. “We are sick,” they write, “of this neo-feudalism that governs our lives.” Folksy as it is, the collective is identifying a modern twist on an ancient and serious problem: though stereotyped as a world of affluent comfort, the British countryside is a place of profound inequality. As a new UnHerd polling map shows, forgotten provincial regions are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis equal to the inner cities, compounding an existing problem of rural poverty and working-class displacement.
No-fault evictions are commonplace across the country — reports say they increased 76% in just three months last year — but there are no official statistics that break down how many take place in rural areas. If you speak to those who live in an Area of Natural Beauty, you’ll hear the same story again and again, of landlords evicting local people so they can make more money from their properties, often by turning them into holiday cottages. In some places in Wales, the Highlands, Cornwall and the Lake District, one in four properties are Airbnbs. When you add second homes to that statistic, there are villages like Elterwater in Cumbria where 80% of houses are unavailable to live in. Inevitably, it is the lower classes who are pushed out.
For hundreds of years, if you worked in the countryside, you were usually given a “tied” house to live in. Villages used to have a house for the doctor, the teacher, the policeman, and so on. Foresters were provided with cottages in far-flung, newly-planted forests. Cotton mills, which were first built in the depths of the countryside so that they could take advantage of the waterfalls to power their factories, provided dorm-like accommodation for their workers (who were mainly orphans: children were cheaper to employ). Slate, coal, copper and tin mining all provided rows and rows of badly insulated houses.
Many of these traditional rural industries are gone, and most with good reason. There is no point romanticising them. The homes they provided were often cramped and sometimes isolated. And if you lost the job, you lost the house too. The words of a Scottish crofter, from 1883, are evidence of the impact this insecurity had: “I want the assurance that I will not be evicted for I cannot bear evidence to the distress of my people without bearing evidence to the oppression and high-handedness of the landlord and his factor.” His words eerily echo those of Esme Boggart, a reminder that the old ways are not the best.
While the old schoolhouse might have been sold off, this ancient status quo still exists for farmers, who have lived in “tied” houses for centuries. If you rent the farm, usually a home will be provided too. Currently, around a third of England is farmed by tenant farmers. But having lived and worked on the land for decades, they often find themselves forced out of the landscapes they love. Christine, who lives on a tenant farm in Yorkshire, will have to leave her home when she and her husband can’t farm anymore. In preparation, they have bought a small house in the nearest market town. They would have preferred to stay in the countryside, but they simply can’t afford it.
And while people who have worked the land their whole lives are forced to move off it, people who work in cities are retiring to the countryside in droves. The Highlands and Islands Business Federation, for instance, is worried that some areas will simply become “glorified retirement communities”. If there are no children left to go to the local school, and no-one left to run the county show, put on the pantomime at Christmas or run the shop, these things cease to exist. Businesses are already shutting down because they can’t find enough local staff.
Some sectors still provide homes for workers — usually the ones that cater to outsiders. Big hotels need plenty of staff, and will provide rooms for bar managers, waitresses, chefs, and cleaners if necessary. Distilleries provide accommodation. The National Trust houses workers on some of its properties. But most restaurants and cafes do not, and slowly but surely, they are closing.
This is a sign that it’s not just the older generation, whose working days are done, being forced out of rural areas and into towns. Rachel grew up near Hawkshead, in the Lake District. When she first left home, she worked at a hotel in a neighbouring village. “Obviously I couldn’t afford to buy round Hawkshead,” she told me. Any houses that come on the market in the picturesque village get snapped up by people who can afford to pay sky-high prices. “The cheapest house was in Kendal,” about 20 miles away. But it was subject to a local occupancy clause, designed to keep houses in the hands of local people. It wasn’t very well designed: “They said I wasn’t local enough! My whole family is from either Kendal or Hawkshead area!” She wrote to the local councillor arguing her case, and was eventually allowed to buy a one-bedroom house in Kendal.
Ten years later, Rachel was married and pregnant with her first child. She and her husband applied for another local occupancy house in the same area but were, again, told no. This time the reason for refusal was because they didn’t have children. “I was about to have a baby!” And her choices were limited. There is still no way she could afford to buy in the village where she grew up. Opportunities to rent long-term are rare.
“It’s not a housing crisis, it’s an affordability crisis,” says author Catrina Davies. In other words, it’s not about building more. A decade ago, when she was in her early thirties, she wanted to move back to Cornwall, which has the largest number of second homes in England. Catrina spent her childhood there, but the only place she could afford was a shed. “Houses have become a luxury item”; they are supposed to be homes. The shed is over 100 years old and she has no running water, but it is just that: a home.
Rural areas have benefitted from the wealth of those who don’t live there for decades, but now the balance has tipped. Locals are being squeezed out by those with more money than them, and communities are starting to vanish. The government is, slowly, doing something about it. As of April 2023, a holiday home must be rented out for a minimum of 70 days a year to qualify for business rates as opposed to council tax. In Wales, local authorities have already been given the power to increase council tax on second homes by 300%. And in Scotland, properties intended to be used as holiday rentals will have to apply for a licence from local authorities.
In England, however, the crackdown is slower. In December last year, Cumbrian MP Tim Farron campaigned for more powers to restrict short-term lets. It was voted down by 321 votes to 172. It is worth noting, at this point, that MPs are three times as likely than the average citizen to own a second home.
With understandably limited faith in the authorities, communities are fighting back. There are now over 200 community-bought woodlands across the nation, for instance, used for a range of things, from forest schools to improving biodiversity. And collectives are buying land on which to build houses that can unequivocally belong to local people, locking in clauses to make sure they are never sold off as second homes. But many, like the anonymous campaigners behind Esme Boggart, are too afraid to directly challenge those with the power to evict them. As for the family in South Oxfordshire that the witch represents, they have been given another six months. What then, who knows.