Second homes are emptying Welsh communities – and driving our language into decline | Colin Williams

sIn 1911, when census figures recorded nearly a million Welsh speakers aged three years and over in Wales, the Welsh language was in an almost permanent state of crisis. The lack of opportunities to speak Welsh at home and at school, along with a long-term trend of people immigrating from Wales, has led to a decline in the number of Welsh speakers. A recent Office for National Statistics estimate puts around 895,000 people speaking Welsh, but the figure is expected to be lower when 2021 census data is published, on December 6. Now, another factor is contributing to the decline of the Welsh language: the steady rise of second homes.

It’s easy to see why Wales, with its stunning coastline and rural landscape, has become a favorite location for holiday homes. But growing up in second homes has a devastating effect on the Welsh language. In some places, the concentration of second homes is so high that up to 46% of local housing stock can be empty for parts of the year. In places like Gwynedd, one in ten homes is a second home. According to government figures, there are currently 23,974 second homes in Wales. This figure is likely to be an underestimate, as many homes are used as short-term self-catering accommodation. As these homes are registered as companies, they do not appear on council tax rolls.

Rising second homes contribute to higher home prices. This prompts many young Welsh speakers, who are understandably sad that they are having to leave their local communities. As more communities turn into vacation spots, rural and village schools are closed. This in turn weakens the dominance of Welsh as the default language in certain communities, causing Welsh-speaking towns and villages to “interpret”, according to Simon Brookes, chair of the Welsh-speaking Communities Committee.

Geography and place are important to a language. Once you stop speaking the minority language on the street, at school, or in social and community life, the resonance of that language changes. Instead, language becomes ingrained in the education system as a skill to be acquired, rather than as a spoken part of everyday life. Without opportunities to speak Welsh on a daily basis as part of the community, Welsh speakers may find themselves less able or confident about initiating conversations in Welsh – particularly when dealing with health, government and other services.

The issue of maintaining a Welsh speaking heart had been in the public consciousness since the 1920s. More recently, campaigns by the Welsh Language Association, Nid yw Cymru ar Werth (Wales are not for sale) and Cymuned, which promote local employment opportunities and allow locals access to housing, have led the fight for language rights while connecting the Welsh language to a wider group. of social and economic issues. These organizations see Welsh conservation as key to preventing the erosion of communities’ quality of life.

Inspired by conservation movements and culture, a range of recent proposals have attempted to counter the decline of the Welsh. Planning policies allow local authorities to consider the Welsh language in planning decisions (Horizon Nuclear Power’s proposal in Anglesey was subject to both an environmental assessment and a Welsh language assessment). Given rapidly rising housing costs and the lack of affordable housing, these planning policies need to be updated. They could, for example, give greater weight to developments that promote the survival of the Welsh language, or devote more resources to local authority programs that would preserve the language, tackle poverty and improve services available to Welsh-speaking communities.

The Welsh Speaking Communities Committee was set up earlier this year by the Welsh Government. It will publish its first report in 2024 and will likely recommend homeowners obtain planning permission to change their property into a second home. Another suggestion could be a variable tax of up to 300% on second homes in certain areas. In addition, the Welsh government could promote some initiatives in community-led housing, such as community ownership models that would transfer title and land to local housing associations or social enterprises, helping to mitigate the housing crisis.

A more radical policy might include introducing tax incentives to encourage people to stay in their areas, or to encourage Welsh-speaking newcomers to move to ‘threatened’ areas. Farmers were paid to look after the endangered landscape, so why not pay Welsh speakers a similar tax to move into an endangered community and help keep the language alive?

Despite the erosion of Welsh-speaking communities in north and west Wales, there is still much to be hopeful. Cardiff Council Chairman Hu Thomas has committed to creating more Welsh-speaking schools and introducing more Welsh-taught classes in English-speaking schools. In other areas of authority there are plans to create Welsh streams in English speaking schools and to open bilingual schools. Meanwhile, initiatives such as Canolfan Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (Welsh National College)’s ‘Siarad’ scheme pair new speakers with accomplished native speakers, giving language learners informal opportunities to mingle in places where Wales dominates.

Many people learning Welsh are likely to see the language as a utilitarian skill they need in order to get a job in certain sectors, rather than as a language for social interaction. To show why Welsh is such an important foundation for people who live in and contribute to Welsh society, we need leadership and inspiration. Linguistic and societal decline is not inevitable. Given the national and local will, there is no reason why we should not protect the Welsh language for future generations.