Cornish Tourism: Sun, Surf and Sustainability

By Sophia Bishop

Every year, the Global Sustainable Development department’s essay competitions aims to engage prospective students within the sustainability debate. This year, one of the potential questions the competition essayists were able to talk about was sustainability in their local area, and the main challenges that our local towns and communities face.

This essay was written by runner-up, Sophia Bishop. Sophia brings a fresh take on sustainable summer tourism in her home county of Cornwall, beyond the Cornish coastlines, scones and surfer dudes we all know and love. With homelessness on the rise, seasonal uncertainty, and flocking second home hunters, how can Cornwall succeed in its quest for sustainability?

Cornwall, as the most southerly county in the UK, covers over 1300 square miles of the South West English coast. During the nineteenth century, the chalcopyrite and tungsten mining industry created many opportunities within the region, which prompted rapid economic growth. At their peak, Cornish mines spanned over 2000 miles, and employed thousands of local workers. However, in 1985, tin prices dropped by 20%, which made extraction uneconomical. Mines across Cornwall closed, with the last working mine closing in 1998. By 2018, Cornwall became named the second poorest region in Northern Europe.

However, within the Brundtland Report, sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainable development can encompass social, political, environmental and economic sustainability. Therefore, how can Cornwall revive its local economy, and protect its natural environment? Personally, I believe tourism, and the rise in second home ownerships, are the main challenges to sustainable development within the area.

The largest socio-economic influence on the county is undoubtedly tourism. “Areas of Natural Beauty” compose almost 25% of Cornish land, and its 422 miles of coastline makes it a popular summer destination, with the county attracting over 5 million international and domestic tourists annually. Economically, tourism directly accounts for 24% of Cornwall’s Gross Domestic Product. However, despite tourism accounting for 20% of all employment within the country, many of these jobs are seasonal which leads to employment uncertainty and poverty within the county. This hinders sustainable development because those directly or indirectly employed by the tourism have less disposable income, resulting in less local investment and a loss of general production. Some years, this showed as much as a 41.8% reduction in GDP between August and January. 

Furthermore, a rise in tourism has unsurprisingly correlated with a rise in the number of properties being used as second homes. In 2015, as many as 40,000 homes within the county were categorised as second homes. A rise in second homes have made property prices in honeypot towns escalate, such as St Ives or Padstow. The prices in these towns then no longer reflect local incomes. For example, the average house price in Cornwall is £324,000. This is 18 times higher than the typical £15,000-17,000 local salary. Consequentially, Cornwall has seen dramatic increases in the number of people sleeping rough, with figures having increased by over 60% from 2015. Meanwhile, whole villages lay deserted during the winter months. 

Such figures display the area’s economic inequality, which prevents growth and impedes sustainable development within Cornwall. Furthermore, this reduces demographic diversity, creating a non-mixed community whilst burgeoning social conflicts. Moreover, younger people are barred from the property ladder, and are pushed out of rural villages as older, wealthier second homeowners fill the properties. As the young then move away from the area, Cornwall becomes a brain drain with a growing economically dependent ageing population. This is economically unsustainable and will delay sustainable development within Cornwall.

Socially, many local stake holders believe that the increase in second home ownership has led to a loss of identity of place. Meanwhile, schools have become undersubscribed, policing across the county has fallen, and The Royal Cornwall Hospital is overstretched in peak tourism seasons. Due to Cornwall’s relatively small population of just over 500,000 residents, infrastructure within the county is limited, meaning it can become exhausted by tourists and second homeowners during the summer months. Tourism and second home ownership can also give rise to social conflicts. For example, in St. Ives and St. Austell, there have been major disputes between local residents and second homeowners, with residents campaigning for second home bans in the area. This creates social unrest and for this reason obstructs sustainable development.

Environmentally, many are hesitant about installing major sources of renewable energy. Cornwall currently has 417 wind turbines and 71 solar farms. However, in fear that they will ruin the aesthetics of Cornwall’s protected coastline, and discourage tourists from seeking the rural “chocolate box” countryside, little further progress is being made. This obstructs environmentally sustainable development. However, with the demand for renewable energy increasing and with Cornwall boasting the highest average wind speed across Europe, the number of wind turbines on or around the Cornish coast should be increasing. 

Politically, local governments must decide where to invest in ‘honeypot’ areas or other regions of the county. Local government must provide adequate housing, transport, infrastructure, and service provision for local residents. Local governments tend to grant planning permission for larger housing estates outside of tourist hotspots. However, many argue it is such areas that would benefit from the development of new properties, in order to stabilise the social and economic unrest within the community, such as reducing the variation in seasonal income and social conflict. I believe this would encourage sustainable development within Cornwall, providing that the properties build were also environmentally sustainable and aesthetically sensitive. For example, smaller dwellings are going to be more environmentally sustainable than larger estates.  

A solution to mitigate second home ownership could be to legally implement a second home ban or second home quotas. In November 2016, the high court passed a legal ban on second homes in the honeypot town of St. Ives. I believe similar bans could be implemented within other ‘honeypot’ towns around the county: this would promote more seasonal employment whilst reducing the average property prices, making homes more accessible to local residents. Similarly, quotas, in which one either chooses to limit the number of second homes in an area, or to set a minimum amount of time that the owners must be living within their second property per year, could be implemented. Additionally, second homeowners could be taxed in a way that benefits the local residents. A tax could discourage people from buying second homes and help to ease the stress on local services. Additionally, the number of properties with a local occupancy clause on them could also be increased.

To conclude I believe that the main challenge to the sustainable development in Cornwall is tourism and second home ownership. Quotas or bans on second homes, as well as further taxing on second home ownership, may provide the mitigation needed to encourage sustainable development.

Header image by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash. Location: Penzance, Cornwall.



2 thoughts on “Cornish Tourism: Sun, Surf and Sustainability

Add yours

  1. This is a really considered and thought provoking essay and I can see why it was chosen. Well done Sophia! It very effectively raises issues related to the 3 pillars of GSD, flags key problems and makes some very good proposals. Many not familiar with Cornwall will be very surprised by just how poor it is. Having just returned from two very small villages in South East Cornwall, from observations and discussions with locals and small business owners (and family in various other parts of Cornwall), it is very clear that all these problems are very pertinent to the coastal area I visited.

    One thing that struck me in the article was the assumption that social conflict prevents sustainable development. To take up just one point about this, there are a number of schools of thought that would argue that conflict is inevitable in society, here not least between rich outsiders and much poorer locals. Could social conflict be understood differently? Could it be conceived as not inherently negative but potentially a positive force for progressive social change? If social conflict is inevitably a barrier to sustainable change, then does that make individuals like Greta Thunberg or the social movements to which she belongs, like the School Strikes for Climate (and others such as BLM and XR) wrong to protest, negative, and a barrier to progressive social change? Thanks once again Sophia for a great article and I hope to see you in GSD soon as this topic and the type of analysis would be very welcome.


  2. Presumably it was locals who chose to sell their properties to second-home owners? I wonder how keen they would be to have restrictions on whom they’re allowed to sell to…


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