Are ghost towns haunting our future?

In the aftermath of World War Two, bombed out cities were rectified by rapid building programmes that threw up high rise flats.

A housing crisis might have been averted, but a much bigger social problem was born. Forced into the solitary confinement of the tower block, communities that previously bonded on the doorstep and over the garden fence lost touch with one another.

Fast forward 70 years and the appetite for constructing tower blocks might have decreased, but a new kind of problem is fracturing the community spirit of some of the most desirable locations in the UK. Recent Government figures reveal that more than 1.5 million people in England and Wales now have a second home. The ratio is particularly startling in areas such as Cornwall, where a fifth of properties are owned by someone who only lives there part-time.

Individual second homeowners might have made little impact on their adopted communities, but collectively they have altered their DNA. At Christmas and during the summer holidays, the streets are crowded with people. Out of season, it’s a very different story. Schools and post offices, once staples of community life, have closed down. Restaurants and grocery stores that previously employed dozens of locals have been converted into luxury apartments that stand empty for most of the year.

Individual second homeowners might have made little impact on their adopted communities, but collectively they have altered their DNA.

Second home ownership can be traced back to the 1980s, when wealthy Londoners began to snap up seaside properties as business opportunities. These desirable locations, with picture perfect sea views, offered an ideal of escape from city living, even if it was just for a few weeks a year. As properties changed hands and prices escalated, local people found themselves priced out of the market.

The irony now is that parts of London itself are becoming a ghost towns too. Dubbed the “lights out London” effect, seven out of ten properties in Ashburn Place, Kensington are now second homes according to Kensington & Chelsea Council. The City of London has a population of just 7,000 people thanks to the high concentration of office buildings. Local restaurants, bars and businesses are struggling for custom and closing down.

The capital’s estate agents reported a surge of foreign investment into the city following the Conservative election victory and the consequent removal of the threat of ‘mansion tax’.

The irony now is that London itself are becoming ghost towns too.

The importance of connection

If we begin to live in a more isolated fashion, we will need to work hard as individuals to re-establish our sense of place and belonging. Extensive research has been conducted into how being part of a group can benefit mental health and happiness, whether it’s a sporting activity, learning a new skill or joining together with like-minded people. Humans are social, community-minded creatures and without a sense of place, we often turn to other substances – drugs, food, alcohol, – to anaesthetise our feelings of isolation. If we want to reclaim our happiness, we need to look closely at how we live our lives and support each other to do the same.