OPINION: Will Oxford Grove emerge as Ilfracombe’s new des-res?

North Devon Gazette

At 17-years-old I lived at 18, Clanricarde Gardens, Notting Hill. What a dump! but nevertheless, a cheap rent at £3.3s.0d weekly. Sadly, as one of the scruffiest avenues in west London, it had been in its halcyon days a posh address of upper-class families with servants.Â

Long after its Edwardian heyday, however, grotty bedsitters were formed from elegant lounges, mine being one of them.Â

Fast forward to the 2020s and memories are stirred of it by a very steep terrace leading from Ilfracombe’s High Street up to Highfield Road. Oxford Grove has for years endured sniffy descriptions of being ‘a bit tatty’.Â

It comprises a long row of mainly rented, high multiple occupancy (HMO) houses built at the turn of the last century, and clearly, not all of them have been lavished with love.Â

That’s rather a pity because in the main they are otherwise handsome and substantial three and four-storey dwellings boasting style and character. The houses were originally intended as ‘gentlemen’s residences’ for wealthy Victorian playboys who fancied a seaside retreat in the graceful new resort of Ilfracombe, just four hours’ train journey from Waterloo.

All met the requirements of well-heeled gadabouts looking for an ideal bolt-hole that included valets’ accommodation, and with no gardens to worry about. Oxford Grove, though, is changing fast. Over recent months, a dawn clanking and clunking chorus of scaffolders’ poles has greeted its occupants as platforms are prepared for painters and decorators.Â

Recently, Oxford Grove featured prominently in ITV’s Ilfracombe-based drama, ‘The Long Call’. Will its brief stardom as a film location inflate both the street’s desirability and prices, as it did in Notting Hill?Â

Once a notorious no-go London suburb, Notting Hill has become a pricey hot-spot, thanks chiefly to Richard Curtis’s eponymous romantic comedy. In Ilfracombe, Oxford Grove, too, is enjoying a reformation. From languishing as its shabbiest area, it promises to become one of the town’s most desirable locations to live.Â

Yet this reversal of fortunes may contribute to a Devon-wide accommodation problem as landlords sell up and capitalise on the unforeseen opportunities presented by Covid-19. Emerging from the pandemic is the magnetic pull from London to west-country resorts for those seeking the sanctuary of a second home doubling as a workplace.Â

Many smaller landlords are tempted to liberate themselves from the more onerous aspects of renting; the anxieties of arrears, soaring repair bills, and new legal demands to install expensive safety equipment requiring frequent service contracts.Â

Record sales of formerly rented properties is driving the shortage of homes to let, with two TV shows in particular influencing the availability of flats and houses.Â

BBC’s Homes Under the Hammer illustrates the lucrative nature of the rental market to developers hoovering up at auctions badly neglected properties. Meanwhile, Channel 5’s somewhat voyeuristic Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, acts almost as a deterrent to would-be landlords, warning them of the manifold risks involved in letting property.Â

These include irresponsible and unreliable tenants who care nothing for their homes, nor appreciate the financial investment that provides them. Evictions in Devon are rocketing, and this will surely impact on a tourist industry that depends on locally resident staff.Â

Holiday-park owners face mounting staff recruitment difficulties as cleaners and maintenance workers struggle to find affordable homes nearby.Â

Service and hospitality industries will suffer, too, with hotel and bar staff unable to secure reasonably-priced accommodation. I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Essex where I learned from a former London colleague that the army of cleaners servicing the capital’s offices and shops are for the main part sourced from migrant labour.Â

Companies employing them seem more concerned with seeking new contracts than their employees’ quality of life, with hot-bedding in cramped six-to-a-room hovels becoming a miserable existence willingly tolerated by hundreds.Â

One thing we don’t want in North Devon are fields of mobile homes housing seasonal workers as a solution to any future holiday industry staffing crisis. The price today for my old gaff in Clanricarde Gardens? No change from £1.5m.Â