Lake District cafe owner fights holiday lets with plan to ’buy back’ town

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Chinty Turnbull fully expects people will say she’s taken leave of her senses as she outlines her bold plan of action. She wants to reclaim a Lake District honeypot town – “buy it back, brick by brick”.

“I think a lot of people think I am mad, yes,” she said. “What’s that scene in Jerry Maguire when everyone is saying yay, great, good for you! And they’re all going ‘oh my God’.”

Keswick is overrun by holiday lets, often owned by second and sometimes third homeowners. Go into an estate agent and the sea of “sold” signs leaps out. About 80% of buyers in the town are not local.

Campaigners say the life is being sucked out of the Lake District because soon none of the people who work there will be able to afford to live there. Businesses already struggle to recruit staff.

An estate agent’s display in Keswick
An estate agent’s display in Keswick. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It is a picture replicated in tourist towns across the UK, but the situation in Keswick is acute. One estate agent said he had known nothing like it in his 35 years in the business.

About 10 days ago Turnbull was told that her building, where she runs an eco-cafe, was up for sale. The assumption is that the four rented flats upstairs will become holiday lets.

A sign in Turnbull’s cafe
A sign in Turnbull’s cafe. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The news prompted her to set up a campaign called Buy Back Keswick, Brick By Brick. She needs to raise £825,000 to buy the building and has already been pledged £65,000.

“When we raise the money it will become a community building, with rental money used to restore it,” she said. “That will be one building looked after and then with whatever is left we will go on to another building. We will find these delicate buildings and we will preserve them and we’ll make them places where local people can live.”

Turnbull said there had been much debate about places such as Keswick being dominated by holiday lets and now action was needed. “Holiday homes are fine but, you know, enough is enough. No more. People feel powerless. They don’t feel like they have any control.”

Map
Map

It is a wildly optimistic project but Turnbull has been buoyed up by the feedback she has received from all over the UK. “I do think we can do it. People generally don’t think you can do things which make a difference but I think we can. If 800 people put a grand in then it could work, couldn’t it? It would show people that you can make things better. We want to buy one property, then another one, then another and another.

“There are lots of buildings which used to be butchers or bakers and we can reclaim them. It is not just the millionaires who have control; it can be anybody if you really want it.”

Taking on the millionaires is, however, undeniably a big challenge. Nick Elgey, a sales manager at Hackney & Leigh estate agents in Keswick, said about 80% of his buyers were not local. That is not a new phenomenon but the pandemic has sped things up. “We’ve never really seen such frenzied activity in such a concentrated period.”

The town of Keswick, with Derwentwater beyond
The town of Keswick, with Derwentwater beyond. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

People with cash, inherited or earned, have been particularly desperate to buy in and around Keswick. A four-bedroom cottage in Borrowdale once owned by the film-maker Ken Russell was bought last month within two weeks of going on the market, for more than £1.5m.

“People want to invest their money in bricks and mortar and they feel the Lake District national park is a safe haven,” Elgey said. It was a “thorny issue”, he said, but the other side to the coin was the amount of money holiday lets brought in to the local economy. In Keswick, the occupancy rate year-round is 90%, he said.

“At the end of the day, what can you do about market forces? Keswick is a stunning location. It has national if not international interest. People want to buy there.”

Turnbull argues it’s time to do something. “There’s nothing wrong with people having second homes if there’s space and room for everyone else,” she said. “If you want people serving coffee, cleaning holiday homes, sweeping up … then they need to be able to live here.”