Another Norfolk community is taking a stand against second homes - and this time it is one of the county's biggest tourist towns. CHRIS BISHOP reports

They call it the 'Prosecco Ghetto'.

The north Norfolk town which is bubbling with life on summer weekends and during the holidays, but can feel rather flat and empty when the well-heeled second home owners and tourists have all left.

Now the locals of Wells-next-the-Sea look set to take action, on an issue which is affecting coastal communities across Norfolk.

A draft neighbourhood plan stipulates any new property built in the town must be used as a sole or main residence.

The document - which will govern housing development in the area, if it gets enough support - says the new rule will safeguard the sustainability of Wells "whose living and working community is being eroded through the number of properties that are not occupied on a permanent basis".

It is another sign of a growing rebellion against second homes and holiday lets in many popular areas of the county, which some locals fear are becoming hollowed up by the properties, which can remain empty for long periods.

While many people point out the economic contribution that such homes make, critics say they are pricing out locals and making it hard for many businesses and services to remain sustainable throughout the year.

Now, as the draft plan goes out to consultation, the people of Wells can have that debate.

Roger Arguile, who chairs the working group behind the plan, said the arguments would be played out across the region, with similar strategies being drawn up elsewhere.

Last month, Heacham became the first community in the area to add such a stipulation to its neighbourhood plan.

But the move by such a large and landmark tourist town as Wells has real significance.

"There are dozens of places that are doing it because it's the only tool in the box and it sends out a signal that the current situation is not sustainable," Mr Arguile added.

He said the working group had not been convinced by arguments that its so-called 'primary residence condition' would deter future development.

He added the working group hoped the public consultation would be well-supported.

"I hope people will come in huge numbers because we have tried to replicate their views within what is legal and possible," he said. "We want to hear from as many people as possible."

The plan warns: "Over time it can be demonstrated that the overall Wells population is declining and that the
proportion of second and holiday homes is increasing year on year."

But even some of those who accept there is a problem which needs addressing don't agree with the approach the neighbourhood plan takes.

Homes for Wells is a housing co-operative with 31 properties with affordable rents for locals.

Its chair Lynne Burdon said it had a further 36 families on its waiting list, six of whom are homeless.

"Something desperately needs doing about the number of second homes and holiday lets," she said. "We've got about 40pc at the moment, it's pushing prices up and up, local families can't afford to buy homes.

"This is a seaside town, we want people to come here for their holidays but 40pc is enough. No-one' saying get rid of the holidaymakers, it's a question of balance."

Retired London lawyer Ms Burdon candidly admits she got involved with Homes for Wells after realising she had become part of the problem when she bought a retirement home in the town four years ago.

She fears the tipping point could already be close for Wells, as the town haemorrhages young people leaving businesses struggling to find staff.

Yet she disagrees with the holiday homes ban.

"We don't think it will work. We think it will stop development," she said. "If development stops there will be no more properties of any nature. Something has to be done to provide more affordable housing.

"We think the way forward is a change to the use classes order, to change to a holiday let you need planning permission."

Staithe Street, the town's colourful sprawl of independent shops that climbs up from the harbour was packed in the summer sunshine last week, as the plan was published.

One trader who did not wish to be named, said: "It's not just a problem in Wells. Where I live 75opc of dwellings are holiday homes and they're hardly ever used.

"I know two guys who each own four houses, they bought them with, shall we say, bankers' bonuses and they're just sitting there most of the time."

Retired Derbyshire miner Ged Hall was enjoying the sun by the harbour. Mr Hall, 72 has been a regular visitor to north Norfolk since the 1980s. His current rented cottage cost £1,500 for a week's stay.

"It's been on the telly, they're saying they're kicking people out that's renting houses and turning them into holiday lets," he said. "But there's just no answer, you can't do 'owt about it."

The people of Wells might be about to try to prove Mr Hall wrong.

Town's Perfect Storm

The draft neighbourhood plan states of the 1,563 properties registered for council tax in Wells, some 387 are second homes and 244 holiday lets, totalling 36pc of the town's housing.

They are mainly concentrated along the Quay, Freeman Street, Park Street, Staithe Street and Station Road.

The draft plan says the town's population fell by 12 pc from 2,415 in 2001 to 2,165 in 2011.

It adds: "With homes being taken out of the market for local residents, house prices have risen steeply."

The Office for National Statistics says the median price for a house in Wells as of July 2021 was £530,000.

The average gross household income of Wells residents is £38,550 which will buy a house costing £180,000.

The draft plan concludes: "The growth in the number of second and holiday homes, as well as people from out of the county buying permanent homes in Wells is putting pressure on local people and their grown-up children who want to live in the town."

The neighbourhood plan - if approved by the community - does not automatically bring in a ban, but it means that the local district council, North Norfolk, must consider the views when considering any planning applications in the town.

Have your say

An exhibition and drop-in session is being held on Saturday, July 16, at the Gordon Barrett Memorial Hall, in Clubbs Lane in Wells (10am - 6pm).

From July 18 - September 9, copies can be read and comments made at the town council offices at Wells Community Hospital and the town council's website.