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Second-home movement must be used as an agent of change

I had never been to Istria in Croatia until now.

The coast and the countryside are beautiful and what we would traditionally call 'unspoilt'.

Due to the war, it is only now that tourists are beginning to return, spearheaded by the Austrians and the Germans. The Germans have acquired their country cottages at a pace, prior to the Croatians waking up to the dangers of empty second-house syndrome.

Tourism is an extremely important, emerging part of the Croatian economy but, although they respect their coastline, nature and the well-defined edges of their towns and villages, it would be difficult to build a hotel in the traditional 'Costa Packet' manner - even if they did, the road and rail infrastructure could not cope with the influx.

At the same time, the countryside is littered with empty, ruined houses and uninhabited villages. The country is a good version of Tuscany, perhaps some 50 years ago before Chiantishire and the sloppy planning misdemeanours of the Italians. The architecture is highly influenced by the Renaissance, mixed with a, thankfully, small amount of work by the Hapsburgs.

So we have a beautiful place which could be destroyed by the very thing they think they need - namely tourism and the second home.

It is now a fact of life that, with increased wealth, having two homes is becoming the norm. In this country, we can see that north Norfolk has absorbed an ever-increasing number of Londoners looking for their rural weekend fix. The effect has been two-fold.

First, the prices went up, as did the quality of the shops and restaurants. Second, the longer this trend sustains itself, so the original buyers are able to spend more time there and make a more positive contribution to the community.

The locals still do not like it but they are on the decline, particularly as their own children leave the area in search of job opportunities elsewhere. The effect is that the new blood starts businesses that eventually will give work to the locals'offspring and there will eventually be a redefined 'local'.

In spite of the concerns, the overall effect is good. It redistributes wealth, know-how and opportunity over a wider geographical area.

This 'doubling up'of some people's space requirement is happening at the same time that we are discussing the intensification of our town and city centres with all the obvious environmental and social advantages. It would appear that two opposite and possibly conflicting urban adjustments are happening at the same time, which could, if we are not careful, neutralise the positive elements in both. It is very important for us to work out a rural, small town and village strategy that is wholly consistent with the cities movement.

This means using infill sites defining the edge of settlements, improving the rural transport links and developing the cable network for telecommunications.

Broadband is currently only available on exchanges with more than 300 interested subscribers. On my last enquiry, Sheringham in Norfolk had three possible customers! The rural landscape needs to be protected as well as exploited with new technologies of quality farming, which develop local markets that help define the individuality of places. The enemy of this is that blanket conservation areas make it nigh on impossible to progress the debate of new rural housing forms in an interesting manner. You are not allowed to live as you would perhaps like. Flint skins with pantiles rule at the expense of developing other local skills and new artisans. This second-home movement must be used as an agent of change. Istria has a chance to pave the way.

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