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What is Local Hero village REALLY like now? Fears for Pennan’s future as Airbnb takeover ‘rips soul out of community’

More than half of Pennan's properties are rented out to tourists - and there are worries the situation could get worse.

Councillor Glen Reynolds said the number of Pennan properties being used for investment opportunites is "disappointing". Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson
Councillor Glen Reynolds said the number of Pennan properties being used for investment opportunites is "disappointing". Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Aberdeenshire’s quaint coastal village of Pennan is in the spotlight this month as the movie Local Hero marks its 40th anniversary.

But the reality these days is quite the opposite to the scenes of a tightknit community played out on screen.

There are fears that a rise in tourist accommodation there could eventually leave the famous village completely abandoned.

Banff and District councillor Glen Reynolds has lived in Pennan for 15 years.

I agreed to meet up with him this week to discuss his concerns about the village’s future and what he believes needs to be done.

While I have written about Pennan before, I have never actually stopped by for a visit…

Houses line up along the Pennan coastline. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

But after driving down the winding – and rather steep – road, I arrived in the picturesque village on Thursday morning and was immediately taken by it.

Its homes feature eye-catching splashes of colour from blue, green and even purple, thanks to their painted windowsills and matching doors.

Pennan Harbour also featured in the 1983 film Local Hero. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

But for an internationally famous location, it’s eerily quiet.

The only noises I hear are the waves crashing into the sea wall and cries of seagulls flying overhead.

After meeting up with Glen, he offered me a guided tour of Pennan which I gladly accepted.

Lesson to be learned from Local Hero

We began at the Village Hall, which is currently undergoing improvement works.

The building will take centre stage as its hosts a champagne celebration of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero later this month.

Many exterior shots for the 1983 film were filmed in the coastal village including the movie’s Macaskill Arms and the famous red telephone box.

This British Film Institute plaque was installed outside the Pennan Inn back in 1996. It was one of 126 put in place across the UK to commemorate the centenary of cinema. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

Pennan itself was transformed into the fictional village of Ferness for the film.

Screenings of the movie are also being held in Banff and Portsoy to mark its 40th anniversary.

Earlier this week, Pennan welcomed “masses” of visitors for movie celebrations while a number of surfers took advantage of the waves.

But Glen warned that a message from the 1983 comedy should be adhered to today.

Soul of Pennan being ‘ripped out’ for Airbnbs

There are more than 40 properties in Pennan but half of them, if not more, typically lie empty for large parts of the year.

The homes, which boast breathtaking views of the sea, are rented out as Airbnbs or used by their owners as weekend properties.

Councillor Glen Reynolds has lived in Pennan for 15 years but says the increase in Airbnbs is “disappointing”. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Glen said: “There was a message that came out of Local Hero, and that was to put communities above corporate and financial interest.

“What we are seeing now is people using properties in places like Pennan as income streams, like a minor version of the Burt Lancaster character before his change of heart.

“The soul of this village is being ripped out so that people have income streams.”

So how could Pennan population be boosted?

As we walked up Pennan, Glen pointed out the staggering number of properties that are rented out to tourists.

He tells me a census carried out 100 years ago revealed there were 300 people living in the village – now there are just 12 full-time residents.

Glen revealed Pennan has superfast broadband and believes it could be useful for those who have shifted to online working following the pandemic.

The famous red telephone box at Pennan sits outside the village hotel. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

“Everyone is connected and can work from home, as well as take in all of the sights and scenery that the village has to offer,” he said.

Despite his reservations about the abundance of holiday homes, Glen agreed that tourism was “absolutely fantastic” for Pennan and other similar coastal locations such as Crovie and Gardenstown.

Pennan is popular with tourists throughout the year. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

But he believes the economic and tourism benefits from short-term lets need to be balanced to meet the needs and concerns of these communities.

“My fear is that the balance in isolated and rural communities is swinging the wrong way and the sustainability of villages such as Pennan are under threat,” he explained.

Pennan properties lie empty despite ongoing housing crisis

Glen also addressed the ongoing housing crisis, noting there was a “significant demand” for suitable homes across Aberdeenshire.

He said: “For the health of our communities, and for business growth, a good housing supply is essential.

“Land banking or sitting on investments, or having a property that is rarely used whilst people are without their own roof over their heads, poses a moral and ethical case for change.”

Councillor Glen Reynolds wants Aberdeenshire Council to take action to stop Pennan from becoming abandoned. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Glen believes Aberdeenshire Council needs to take steps to prevent the housing situation in Pennan from getting worse.

“The council isn’t saying you have to try and sell this property to someone that’s going to occupy it full-time before you consider it as an income stream for you,” he said.

“In places like Edinburgh, if homes are empty for a year or two, compulsory purchases are going on because otherwise it’s a blight on the landscape.

“An empty property doesn’t do anybody any use. Things will have to change because otherwise it just won’t last.”

Pennan a ‘playground’ for those with second homes

The veteran councillor noted that in the 15 years he has lived in Pennan, he hasn’t seen much change.

But he told me the situation was “getting worse” as more properties are being bought for investment.

“Empty properties mean that there’s an empty vision, and we need a vision that is strong and sustainable in places like Pennan,” he stated.

Pennan residents can use the drying lines located along the seafront. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

“This shouldn’t be the playground for those that can afford to have second homes and holiday homes.

“This needs to be a living space for residents.

“At the moment, the community is just tinkering on the edge of sinking into dispair.”

Cyclists frequently visit Pennan thanks to its cycle path connections. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

But he believes that what is happening in Pennan is symptomatic of what is happening elsewhere across the north east.

“There needs to be a high-level approach to the resilience of coastal communities that transforms them into places where people live, work and play, not places people go to infrequently and leave.”

Visitors bring ‘economic help’ to Pennan

Could it be argued that tourist accommodation is beneficial for small communities like Pennan?

Bill Pitt, chairman of the New Aberdour, Tyrie and Pennan Community Council, believes it is.

Community council chairman Bill Pitt is pictured outside Pennan Village Hall. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

He explained: “People that come to the village bring economic help.

“There’s small businesses down there, whether it’s holiday homes or the Coastal Cuppie for instance, and the Pennan Inn of course.

“Even new people coming to the village get involved with trying to keep it going viably and doing things in the hall.

“A lot of these people who may have holiday homes are also involved with the committee to do things for the village.”

Pennan Local Hero screenings

Bill also told us that events at the Village Hall are “well received” not only from people in Pennan but further afield.

For example, demand for tickets to screenings of Local Hero in the village was so great that they have sold out.

This comes despite fears the village would miss out due to being deemed “unsuitable”.

He said: “There’s that much of a desire for people to come, not only for the movie but just to come to Pennan.

“To see the movie here makes it that much more special.”

Pennan’s famous red telephone box as seen in Local Hero. Image: Polaris Publishing.

Bill looks after the village’s iconic telephone box, and paints it along with his friend Eddie to ensure it maintains its vibrant red colour.

“People often stop and ask if we can take their picture and we laugh back and forth about it.

“Something as simple as a phone box but it means a lot to a lot of people, and it means a lot to the village too.”

But what are his thoughts on the current situation in Pennan?

“It’s like any place, it’s not what it used to be.

“It has changed but it hasn’t changed necessarily all for the worse, I think people are still trying to make the best of it.”