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Delays in issuing passports raised at FF, FG meetings

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Concerns over a delay in processing passport applications were raised by TDs and Senators in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at their respective party meetings on Wednesday night.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told a meeting of his parliamentary party that staff for the passport service would double by February as part of efforts to deal with an expected surge in applications next year.

At the Fianna Fáil meeting, a series of TDs and Senators, including Minister of State Niall Collins, Cormac Devlin, Dara Calleary, Timmy Dooley and Malcolm Byrne raised concern about delays in processing passport applications.

Mr Martin was asked to raise the issue with Mr Coveney.

Routine passport processing slowed to a trickle during the last 18 months but a return to foreign travel, Brexit and the realisation among thousands of would-be travellers that their documents are approaching expiration, has culminated in an expected surge of activity.

Next year is expected to see a 50 per cent increase in renewals over the previous record level.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said last month it was in the process of recruiting temporary clerical officers to support “expanded passport service operations” in the coming months.

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Ski home values rise by up to 17% despite travel restrictions says Savills

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It’s not just Britain’s property market that is red-hot. Homes in ski resorts are being snapped up by wealthy buyers despite the pandemic and on/off travel restrictions, a new reports suggests.

And just like here, the staggering growth in values stems from high demand and lack of supply. 

The findings are in Savills latest ski report, which tracks 44 resorts globally. It found that property prices grew on average 5.1 per cent in the last year.

However, some resorts – including Flims and Grimentz in Switzerland – saw values rise 17 per cent.

This chalet in Chemin Des Cleves in Switzerland and is for sale for CHF6,000,000, the equivalent of £4.9million

This chalet in Chemin Des Cleves in Switzerland and is for sale for CHF6,000,000, the equivalent of £4.9million

Top 20 prime ski resorts, based on price per square metres (priced in euros)

Top 20 prime ski resorts, based on price per square metres (priced in euros)

The release of pent-up demand for ski properties follows almost two seasons of closures for most resorts.

Jeremy Rollason, of Savills, said: ‘Only a few resorts such as Val d’Isère, Verbier and Morzine were seeing real price growth up until 2019. 

‘That has all changed with virtually all resorts in the Alps and North America experiencing strong double digit and sometimes exponential price growth in a matter of months.’

He adds: ‘The first quarter of 2021 was particularly acute for demand. Transaction volumes doubled over the previous year and fierce competition emerged, especially for prime property in the most exclusive resorts.

‘Property that had previously been for sale for a few months – or even years – suddenly found buyers who were keen to escape the confines of towns and cities.’

The North American ski resorts of Aspen and Vail top the Savills Ski Prime Price League with Courchevel 1850 moving from the top spot to third place.

Aspen, which celebrates its 75th birthday this season, is predominantly a domestic market, with average values at around £25,000 per square metre.

Meribel has broken into the top ten price resorts with asking prices of around £13,800 per square metre. 

With its 200 lifts, and central to the world’s largest ski area – Les Trois Vallees – Meribel is popular among French and British skiers looking for a dual season resort.

Making the most of a dual season: This five-bed chalet is in St Gervais, in France's Haute-Savoie region, and is on the market for €2.5m (£2.13m)

Making the most of a dual season: This five-bed chalet is in St Gervais, in France’s Haute-Savoie region, and is on the market for €2.5m (£2.13m)

Estate agents Savills also looked at the prospects for price growth in 10 key resorts

Estate agents Savills also looked at the prospects for price growth in 10 key resorts

While resorts have always pushed the benefits of using properties throughout the winter and summer, a dual season resort is now the most important locational factor for buyers as they look to make the most of their holiday homes, according to Savills.

The estate agent said that regardless of international travel restrictions, foreign buyers are still keen to purchase ski resort properties and have been quick to return to the property market as restrictions have lifted.

This week, some resorts opened early amid heavy snowfall and are hoping to remain so throughout the season.

Mark Nathan, of Chalets 1066, the largest operator in France’s Les Gets, said: ‘We are fortunate here in that Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the French Minister for Tourisme has said that ‘closing is not an option’ this winter.

‘The snow is amazing at the moment and the pistes will be opening this weekend. The planned date was December 12 for early opening so this shows how good the conditions are. The fresh snow was up to my knees this morning.’

This five-bed chalet is in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is for sale for CHF4,200,000, the equivalent of £3.4million

This five-bed chalet is in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and is for sale for CHF4,200,000, the equivalent of £3.4million

He explained that visitors will be expected to show proof of vaccination to go into bars and restaurants, and also when buying lift passes.

‘There might even be random checks in the lift queues. We are also expecting to have to use masks in lift queues – but these are all small points and the good news is we can all ski and enjoy a mountain holiday. 

‘Our bookings are the best we have ever had by a long way, in over 13 years of business. 

‘Over the past few days there has been nervousness among the English and a few other countries with the new Omicron variant, but we now hear that the Swiss will be allowing people who are on their way to France to land at Geneva and then take a transfer directly to France. 

‘Overall, we are looking forward to an exciting ski season.’

Qualified ski instructor and ski journalist Rob Stewart added: ‘British skiers spend more money than domestic visitors and ski resorts are desperate to have us back. 

‘In some French resorts, British skiers are only second to French visitors in regards to numbers and we are such an important part of their economy.

‘This winter, snow seems to have come fairly early and in decent quantities, and it’s cold. This always helps increase visitor numbers and after such a terrible winter last year because of Covid, there is huge positively about this winter being a good one.

‘The challenges remain for British skiers, with nerves around changing travel restrictions still haunting the industry and lack of availability pushing prices higher for the moment. 

‘But for skiers that have missed out for one and half seasons now, these challenges will be overcome if possible, for the chance to get back on the slopes’.

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Players should be allowed to compete in Saudi International

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Rory McIlroy has delivered a potentially crucial intervention on behalf of golfers wishing to compete in the Saudi International in February by insisting the PGA and European tours should not block them from playing.

The Saudi International, once of the European Tour but now an Asian Tour event, has confirmed a number of the world’s most prominent golfers – including Tommy Fleetwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Sergio García – have agreed to feature in 2022.

Saudi Arabia has sought to make inroads into professional golf but has encountered stiff resistance from the European and PGA tours. It has been reported both those bodies could trigger open warfare by refusing to grant releases to their members to play in Jeddah. The European Tour will discuss the issue at board level in the coming days.

McIlroy has no interest in accepting Saudi money but believes others should not be denied the opportunity. “I think we’re independent contractors and we should be able to play where we want to play,” he said. “So in my opinion I think the Tour should grant releases. It’s an Asian Tour event, it’s an event that has official golf world rankings.

“I do see reasons why they wouldn’t grant releases but I think if they’re trying to do what’s best for their members and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money, I mean, we’re independent contractors and I feel like we should be able to do that if that’s what our personal choice is. My personal choice is not to do that but obviously a lot of players are doing that and I think it’s fair to let them do that.

“My view as a professional golfer is I’m an independent contractor, I should be able to go play where I want if I have the credentials and I have the eligibility to do so. I’d say most of the players on tour would be in a similar opinion to me.”

The matter is further complicated by some players having signed multi-year deals to play in Saudi. McIlroy, 32, did admit the prospect of legal wrangling is an unappealing one. “I think the professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand,” he said. “Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? There’s a lot of grey area in that and that’s what sort of needs to be sorted out, I think.”

McIlroy’s curious competitive year will close at this weekend’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. “I think it’s been a year where I’ve struggled in parts but I still got two wins on tour, which is pretty good,” the world No 8 said. “I was tied for the lead with nine holes to go in the US Open. I played well in parts, I just didn’t do it consistently enough. I go back to 2019 and had like 19 top-10 finishes or whatever it was; that’s the level I want to play at.” – Guardian

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Broadcaster Rebecca Wilcox uprooted her family from the city, but it has led to boredom

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Like clockwork he arrived every morning and evening. The small deer would amble across the neighbouring field before slipping his head under the fence to feed on the windfall apples in the orchard at the end of my new garden.

So often did he pop in that he became a regular companion while I drank my morning coffee, then again on my evening walk.

Having left London after lockdown to pursue a new life in the country, this was exactly the rural experience I’d dreamt of — deer strolling about and my two boys laughing on rope swings we had tied to the trees. 

But then my blissful bubble of smugness burst.

It’s probably no coincidence that it happened at about the same time I found my once magical deer, glassy-eyed and eviscerated, lying in pieces across the lawn, killed by forces unknown.

In fact, that felt like a rather gruesome metaphor of my hopes for our new life here.

Having left London after lockdown to live the country, it was the rural experience I'd dreamt of, but then my blissful bubble burst, says Rebecca Wilcox (pictured with her horse Camperito)

Having left London after lockdown to live the country, it was the rural experience I’d dreamt of, but then my blissful bubble burst, says Rebecca Wilcox (pictured with her horse Camperito)

While I wanted to find a new community to rival — or even better — what I’d had before, the reality has turned out to be far more isolating and less pleasurable than I’d expected.

I remember the first time I saw a photo of our new house online. It was like finding Prince Charming on Tinder after kissing all the other frogs. 

Here was the country idyll I’d been searching for, meeting all the requirements on our extensive list.

We wanted an old house with a garden, near a village with a fast train direct into London. After days spent glued to the internet flicking through photos and calling estate agents, we finally found ‘The One’ in Surrey.

It took my breath away with its rose-framed cottage windows, Aga-warmed kitchen, flagstone floors and open fireplaces. 

It seemed to promise a wholesome, happy place to raise my family, which seemed opposite to the lockdown London life we were then living.

Because, like many people who lived through the pandemic, we had fallen out of love with the big city.

Of course, with our house and garden in a nice area close to local parks, we were luckier than most.

While I wanted to find a new community to rival what I'd had before, the reality has turned out to be far more isolating. Pictured: Rebecca's sons Benjamin, nine, and Alexander, six

While I wanted to find a new community to rival what I’d had before, the reality has turned out to be far more isolating. Pictured: Rebecca’s sons Benjamin, nine, and Alexander, six 

But still, life was proving challenging. Our four-bed was our only space for living, working, exercising, schooling and endless eating.

My husband set up his office in the spare room and worked 12-hour days from behind a firmly closed door. 

My children, Benjamin, now nine; and Alexander, now six, struggled to sit still at the kitchen table as I tried to teach them something about fractions or Vikings while attempting to keep up with work, housework and the rest.

The house quickly started to fray around the edges as we rattled from room to room like caged animals. And our small garden was now obviously too tiny for two energetic boys.

Even our lovely north London suburb, Muswell Hill, which is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Europe, had become like a hamster cage. The vibrant High Street and wooded parks became boringly familiar, our enthusiasm having been eroded by daily walks.

We felt trapped and, like everyone else it seemed, we started to research areas filled with greenery and space, a place to let children run on paths that weren’t tarmacked.

By early 2021, the number of Londoners who had relocated from the capital as a result of the pandemic was estimated by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence at 700,000. 

Covid now meant that living in close proximity to other people was increasingly unappealing.

In response, property prices in rural locations soared. A Hamptons survey showed that prices in rural England and Wales increased three times as fast as those in cities.

Our dream of moving away started to become more of a possibility when we saw others do it. By the end of summer 2020, several close friends had uprooted. One or two stole away without mentioning their plans until they were fully ensconced in their new areas.

In London, we started to research areas filled with greenery, a place to let children run on paths that weren't tarmacked. Pictured: Rebecca with her sons Benjamin and Alexander

In London, we started to research areas filled with greenery, a place to let children run on paths that weren’t tarmacked. Pictured: Rebecca with her sons Benjamin and Alexander

Other friends debated their move options with me on endless FaceTime calls. Even my mother, the broadcaster Esther Rantzen, a stalwart city girl, quietly sold her London flat and relocated permanently to the New Forest.

As spring 2021 started to breathe a fresh light into London, I realised that half of my friends and all my family had left. What’s more, they all seemed happier.

Which is when I started to look more determinedly for our new life in the country.

Once I’d found our dream house in Surrey, it was as if the decision had been made for us — and after living in the city all my life, we finally moved out in July.

Before I left, my friends assured me that meeting people wouldn’t be an issue. I was an outgoing person. I would find other mums at the school gates, fellow runners and like-minded families. It would be fine.

Emboldened by their encouragement, the day after we arrived I put out messages on local Facebook sites to connect with other mums, hoping to make the first day at school a little less scary for us all.

Only two responded but they were both very friendly. Unfortunately, they were also extremely busy and couldn’t meet up, and I didn’t see them again until the term started.

Still, it was a positive start and, undeterred, I placed more messages on the village groups, asking to join running clubs, a book club, the PTA, volunteering at local groups, anything!

In London, I’d had a lifetime to meet people. I wasn’t naive enough to expect to walk into a fully established friendship circle on the first day, or even month. But I did hope to find friendly people who were open to meeting new families.

As spring 2021 started to breathe a fresh light into London, I realised half of my friends and all my family had left and they all seemed happier. Pictured: Rebecca, Benjamin and Alexander

As spring 2021 started to breathe a fresh light into London, I realised half of my friends and all my family had left and they all seemed happier. Pictured: Rebecca, Benjamin and Alexander

Sadly, this was not the case. Most of the groups I tried were full or met at impossible times of the day; can you believe they go running at 5.30am round here?

I hoped to meet people at school socials, but they weren’t happening due to Covid. The ones that did go ahead proved to be nerve-jangling evenings which I spent standing solo and trying to smile at everyone, possibly looking a little crackers.

As my lack of success caused me to feel more isolated, my attempts to reach out grew a bit desperate and consequently less appealing. It was clear that making friends was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought.

I now feel slightly adrift, so if I am invited to things, I’m so unsure of myself that I spend ages worrying about whether I laughed too loud or talked too much, social anxiety I never had in the past.

Those people I do speak to seem to move on quickly. It’s clear I’m a nuisance, and loneliness is a sadly unattractive quality.

Eventually, even the running group I joined disbanded and re-formed without me. Apparently, you can talk too much on a 5km run. Who knew?

I used to be much better at this, at the epicentre rather than standing awkwardly on the periphery.

In London, our area was young family central and the result was a brilliantly busy social life. At every school drop-off there were dozens of people to chat with, go out to dinner with or just moan to and laugh with.

But whereas before we would walk to school, in the country most parents drive. Us included, as a three-mile trek down single-track country lanes is not safe for a six-year-old. 

So instead of gathering round the gates, parents sit in their cars until the doors open, then rush their children inside.

There were no welcoming drinks for new parents either, unless your children were in the first year, so our family’s arrival went unnoticed in the playground.

During Covid, our London suburb, Muswell Hill, which is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Europe, had become like a hamster cage. Pictured: Her sons at their London home

During Covid, our London suburb, Muswell Hill, which is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Europe, had become like a hamster cage. Pictured: Her sons at their London home

The class Whatsapp groups, filled with parents who have known one another for years, feel cliquey and hard to navigate.

I’ve tried volunteering at a few events, but it seems everyone is at their limit with time and energy, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, and very few have the head space to let a new person in.

My husband seems to have suffered less from the change. Whereas I work from home as a broadcaster and writer, his daily commute to London means he is still connected to his previous life. 

But I don’t think men crave social contact in the same way as women: when we lived in London he never went out as much as me. 

He was content to see his friends once or twice a month, while I like far more frequent contact and made plans to see people weekly, if not daily.

My loneliness is compounded by the fact that for months now, I have also spent my days trying to distract myself from the silence in every corner of the echoey house.

There’s a lot to do when the kids are here and the chaos is everywhere. But when the children have gone to school and my husband has left for the office — he works for a property company in Central London — the house is silent and I am utterly alone.

The countryside is so quiet, with birdsong replacing the city hubbub. For most people this is one of the big draws but it has made me feel disconnected from the world.

In London, I tried to shut myself off from the rush of traffic, builders and shoppers who scuttled up and down my road every day. I had never realised before how much that hustle and bustle made me feel connected to people.

My only regular company these days is the plumbers, roofers, electricians and handymen our new home requires.

What at first seemed a quaint old place turns out to have many foibles and problems — a new leak or crack appears daily, something Aviva Home Insurance has said is a common problem. 

About 92 per cent of people who bought houses during the pandemic have found faults they hadn’t noticed during the viewing. I still adore our house, it’s just a little more expensive than we predicted.

I’ve even got a horse — Camperito — as part of my strategy to connect with other people. There is a field attached to our garden and the children had always wanted to learn to ride. I thought perhaps it might even entice people to come and visit us.

Turns out, however, that it’s not uncommon to have a horse in rural Surrey and if you’re interested in horses, you already have one. So now the horse and I take quiet walks up and down the local bridle paths alone.

I suppose it should be some comfort that of the friends who made the big move, 75 per cent have admitted they feel isolated and unsupported.

The countryside is so quiet, with birdsong replacing the city hubbub. For most people this is one of the draws but it has made me feel disconnected. Pictured: Her son riding a horse

The countryside is so quiet, with birdsong replacing the city hubbub. For most people this is one of the draws but it has made me feel disconnected. Pictured: Her son riding a horse

‘Becca, you know I don’t have any friends, right,’ one of them told me, when I asked how she was after admitting my own misgivings.

‘Moving in March, just after coming out of lockdown, means it’s been impossible to meet anyone new.’

Another friend said: ‘I don’t regret moving out of London but it’s difficult to make friends at this age, especially when you’re moving to a smaller community where people have their own friends.’

Others have told me it will take at least a year to feel settled. ‘In a year’s time you’ll look back on this as just a blip,’ a friend insists.

But loneliness is poisonous and confidence-eroding and it’s not just me who feels it.

Every day the children ask me when we can move back to London. They miss their old friends and home hugely.

‘Why are you surprised by any of this?’ my mother-in-law asked me. ‘What else did you expect? You and the boys had years to create a friendship group in London. It won’t just slot into place the moment you arrive.’

‘But they’re children,’ she added, with a knowing smile. ‘They’re resilient, they will move on.’

Which is what I must do, too. I need to face up to these lonely feelings and accept the present is not how it will always be.

There are and will be future friends out there who are just waiting to be met. But in the meantime, I will accept any and all tips on how to find them.

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