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Second Home Ownership: Cumbria

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered second home ownership in Cumbria.

It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl.

My constituency is an awesome place, with the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales, the Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty, the Cartmel peninsula and the rolling hills of south Westmorland alongside the stunning old grey town of Kendal. It may come as a surprise to some that we are Britain’s most popular visitor destination outside London, but it comes as no surprise to us; we know we are awesome, and we are delighted that over 40 million people a year visit us because they agree. Some 60,000 people work in Cumbria’s tourism industry, an industry that is worth £3 billion a year to the economy, and last year the Lake district was granted UNESCO world heritage site status, which has already seen a further increase in visitor numbers to our area in the year just passed.

We are proud to be a place of welcome and a place of warmth and generosity. However your Cumbrian journey begins, however you chose to stay with us, we are glad you are with us, and that includes folks who have a second home. However, this debate is an opportunity to face up to some facts: while we want to extend nothing but kindness and acceptance to all, including those who have a second home in Cumbria, I cannot ignore the fact that the rights of those who can barely afford a first home are being eroded by excessive and increasing second home ownership in so many of our communities.

I will start by clarifying what we mean by the term “second home”. When we use that term, we do not mean holiday lets, which are a significant part of the all-year-round tourism economy. A second home is a property owned by someone whose main home is elsewhere and who lives in that second home pretty rarely, maybe for a few weeks or weekends a year. There is no getting away from the fact that high numbers of second homes rob communities of a permanent population and the consequent demand for local services. They rob those communities of life and vitality, and they can rob them of the resources they need to be sustainable.

Second home ownership also contributes to pushing up house prices beyond what is affordable for most local families. There are 3,819 registered second homes in South Lakeland, but that is unlikely to be even half the picture. Given that second home owners, thankfully, no longer benefit from a council tax discount, they no longer have a financial incentive to register their property as a second home. It is assumed, then, that the majority of owners now simply do not register at all, and 3,819 is therefore likely to be a colossal underestimate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that second home ownership has risen significantly since the time when there was an incentive to register, from 7,000 properties in South Lakeland in 2006 to a likely figure of around 10,000 second homes or absentee-owned properties today.

Ten thousand homes. That is 10,000 homes that do not have a permanent occupant, 10,000 homes not sending children to the local school and 10,000 homes not providing weekly demand for the post office, bus service, pub, church or village store. When second home ownership gets to a critical level, the absence of a permanent population begins to have tangible consequences. Schools in places such as Satterthwaite, Lowick and Heversham have closed because there was not a year-round population big enough to sustain them. Several of my schools today have fewer than 30 pupils. They are brilliant schools, but every time a house in the village is sold to a second home owner, they see their future becoming a little bleaker.

Bus services have been pared back out of season in the Lakes and the Cartmel peninsula for the very same reasons. The village store in Backbarrow closed 18 months ago and awaits a new buyer as the number of full-time residents in that village continues to dwindle. With not enough kids going to local schools, not enough people visiting the local shops and not enough people using the local bus service, it all means that those services end up becoming non-viable and that beautiful places can become empty places, with communities struggling to survive.

Over the weekend, I visited a small hamlet in the Lakes—I will not name it—where there are a dozen houses, precisely half of which are second homes. All the residents of the remaining six properties are pensioners and, as it happens, are under serious threat from their private landlord, who is contemplating evicting them to sell the houses as holiday homes. I am dealing with that matter separately, but even as things stand, each of those residents fears being the last one left as their community dwindles away. A few weeks previously, I met an older gentleman in the Rusland valley who exemplified their fears. He was the last permanent resident of his small hamlet. The only people he ever saw were the people who came and went, renting the homes in his neighbourhood; I would not exactly call them neighbours. He was isolated and, frankly, deeply unhappy.

Last week I made an early-morning visit to the Troutbeck Bridge Royal Mail sorting office, to thank the team for their immense work in the run-up to Christmas. While I was there, the manager of the sorting office told me of an older lady who had been found by the postie, 18 hours after she had had a fall. The settlement near Ambleside where she lived was almost entirely second homes and she was the only full-time resident. She no longer had any neighbours, and in this extreme case that could have cost her her life.

The Government have talked a lot in recent times about loneliness. It is something we are all the more conscious of as a society as Christmas approaches, when the absence of community and family are felt so acutely. Despite their loneliness agenda, the Government have so far done nothing to address the fact that second home ownership is leaving vulnerable people in the shells of once-thriving communities. Those are homes that should be lived in, not just maintained.

The problem affects larger communities too; I could list countless other examples in communities such as Hawkshead, Coniston, Grasmere and Dent, each with around 50% of its properties not lived in all year round. Then we have Elterwater, with a staggering 85% of its properties owned by those who are absent for most of the year. Hon. Members will be unsurprised to hear that Elterwater’s post office closed a few years ago.

It is no surprise that the loss of vital services so often follows the loss of a permanent population. To put it bluntly, excessive second home ownership kills villages. We are a resilient and proud people in Cumbria, working hard to make our own luck. I think of the community-run shop in Witherslack, the community-run post office in Storth and the affordable housing groups in Coniston and Grasmere—all proof that local people are determined to fight against the tide and keep our communities alive and thriving. It feels to me that this is another of those issues that the Government overlook because they have taken their eye off the ball, trapped in the dark forest of Brexit and incapable of focusing on the day-to-day challenges that our country faces.

I am determined to give our communities the best chance to defeat the threat of second home ownership and I am here to tell the Minister that this is a problem that can be solved. The good news is that there is a clear set of actions that the Government could take if they wanted to, to breathe life back into our communities—three actions in particular. First, they could close the business rates loophole that incentivises even greater levels of absentee second home ownership. At the moment, some second home owners are avoiding local taxation altogether. They claim their second homes are let for holiday accommodation, but then make no real effort to let them out at all. As a result, they can bring the homes within the business rates system, instead of paying council tax on them. However, because their “business” will have an income of less than £12,000 a year, it will qualify for small business rate relief, and therefore no council tax or business rates will be paid at all, so no contribution whatsoever will be made to local services. This, frankly, is a scam, and one that hurts communities like mine.

I commend the Government for launching a consultation on tackling this loophole, but it seems to me that they could take action now, and that the action they need to take is pretty obvious. The Government should bring the law in England into line with that in Wales, where an owner needs to prove that their property has been let for a minimum of 70 days per year in order to qualify as a business. At a stroke this would mean that thousands of second homes would be brought into paying tax and contributing towards the local communities that they damage by their absence.

Secondly, the Government could give local authorities the power to levy higher council tax on second homes. Earlier this year, the Government announced that they are introducing provisions to allow local authorities to triple the council tax on homes left empty for five to 10 years, and to quadruple it on those empty for more than a decade. That is a welcome move, but it raises the question of why the Government have not extended those powers to second homes. If they were to do so, councils could choose to set a higher rate of council tax on second homes in those places where there is a threat to the sustainability of the local community.

Closing the business rates loophole and allowing local authorities to increase council tax on second homes would have some impact in dissuading people from buying second homes in those towns and villages that are most under threat. I suspect that someone who can afford at least £500,000 for a second home will not be put off by another £2,000 or £3,000 a year in council tax, but the key purpose of these moves would be to secure additional funds, to be used to provide compensatory subsidies to schools, post offices and bus routes suffering from the lack of a permanent population, and to pump-prime new affordable housing developments for local families, to give those communities a fighting chance of reviving and surviving.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate. He puts forward worthwhile suggestions on how to sustain local villages. However, loneliness is also an issue, as he referred to. Does he feel that church groups and organisations can play a key role in sustaining those people who live on their own in small, dispersed communities? Does he feel that, along with sustainability, the Government should also address loneliness and the role that churches can play?

I think that churches play a big role in communities, and not only in that they are often physically present and can be the last thing that survives as a community centre in a village whose permanent population is contracting. The challenge to Christians is to look out for those lonely people in need. A church is more than just a building, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Across South Lakeland, average house prices are 10 times average household incomes, and in some villages it is 20 times. I am determined that local families in Cumbria should be able to live and to make a living in the communities that they grew up in. The new homes that could be built by those additional funds could make a vast difference to thousands of local people. In the last few years, South Lakeland District Council has enabled the building of 1,200 new affordable homes for local families in places like Grasmere, Ambleside, Hawkshead, Sedbergh, Windermere and Coniston. I get letters from residents in those communities who are the polar opposite of nimbys: “In my back yard, please” say so many people throughout our area who want their village to survive and thrive.

Thirdly, although taxation measures will make a difference, the Government should act on planning law. Second homes should be made a separate category of planning use. If I wanted to change my home into a chip shop, my kids would be utterly delighted but I would have to apply for planning permission for change of use. However, if I wanted to sell my home to someone who would use it as a bolthole for four or five weekends a year, I could do so freely, yet in a very real sense the use of that home would have substantially changed.

To turn a first home into a second home should require planning permission from the local council or the national park, and I would expect planners to say a flat no to such applications in one of the many communities already under the greatest threat and pressure from excessive second home ownership. By taking this action, the Government could enable an immediate cap on second home ownership and would, over time, allow second homes to move back into being permanent family homes, rebuilding, reviving and renewing our communities.

One feature of representing an awesome place is that the problems we face can often be disguised—easy to miss at first glance as we are blinded by the glory. The blight of excessive second home ownership is one such example. It is a blight that I want the Government to tackle today. I want you, Dame Cheryl, and the Minister to come on holiday to the lakes and the dales, to enjoy Cumbria and to know that you are welcome. The Minister of course does not need inviting to the dales, but he will get my point.

I do not want any second home owner out there to think that I am having a personal go at them. I am not. However, my job is to fight for our communities so that they can remain awesome. I ask the Minister to do those three things without delay, to help us to keep them so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate. He is my constituency neighbour, and I know that it is often difficult for him to live in the shadow of beautiful North Yorkshire. However, he did a commendable job of explaining how his constituency plays a good second to North Yorkshire, and I pay tribute to him for that.

The hon. Gentleman has raised second home ownership regularly, both with me and in the House. His passion for and knowledge of the subject is well known and was firmly on display this morning. Second home ownership is a particular concern for his constituents, who live in an authority that ranks seventh in England in terms of the proportion of second homes. He knows that I have a local familiarity with concerns about second home ownership, with a particularly high prevalence of it in the Yorkshire Dales national park.

Residents living in areas where second homes constitute a significant proportion of the housing market can find themselves facing a particular set of challenges. Some believe that second home ownership exerts pressure on the affordability and availability of housing for local residents. It is also perceived to present a hurdle for aspiring first-time buyers looking to put down roots in their home community. Furthermore, vacant second homes can have an adverse impact on community cohesion and the long-term viability of local services and amenities.

However, we must not lose sight of the benefits that second home ownership can bring, or the possible diverse reasons for purchasing a second property. Second homes can boost local economies and tourism and provide employment opportunities, while also encouraging regeneration. In some cases, individuals may not use local services for parts of the year but will continue to contribute to their upkeep through the payment of council tax, freeing up local resources to benefit the local community. The Government are not in the business of being directive when it comes to an individual’s choice of where to purchase property.

There may be various reasons for second home ownership. Although second homes and holiday homes are often conflated, second homes may be properties in use to enable an individual to access employment in the local area. That said, the Government recognise that second home ownership can present various challenges, which is why we have taken various steps to mitigate them. I would like to spend some time outlining those and address the hon. Gentleman’s specific points as well.

The first issue is the second home council tax discount. Under the coalition Government, working in partnership with the hon. Gentleman’s party, we empowered authorities to vary or remove entirely the second home council tax discount, in the light of local circumstances. Local authorities have made extensive use of that change: 94% of second homes no longer receive any discount, and that is the highest proportion in the past five years.

The second step was the empty homes premium. Under the coalition Government, we also worked with the hon. Gentleman’s party to introduce a discretionary empty homes premium of 50% on properties that have been empty and substantially unfurnished for two years or more. This year, 299 out of 326 billing authorities charged a premium on almost 62,000 empty homes. We recently took that further, with cross-party support to put in place legislation to enable a 100% council tax premium to apply when a property has been left empty for more than two years, and for higher premiums for longer timeframes. I am sure that that will be another valuable tool for authorities to use in addressing their local housing market, including empty second homes.

I apologise for interrupting; I am very grateful for what the Minister has said. Will he acknowledge this point? I can tell him that in a constituency such as mine, the number of empty homes is in the hundreds and the number of second homes is in the thousands. Surely, therefore, the action needs to be taken at least as much on the latter as on the former.

I very much take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I point out that I am going through a range of measures and that in different parts of the country second homes and empty homes can actually be conflated. London, for example, is a slightly different case, as he will know, and I appreciate that in Cumbria and my constituency it is not necessarily the case. However, what I referred to is part of the toolkit that local authorities can use to tackle this particular issue, and it demonstrates the Government’s progress in the general area of ensuring that homes are available for those who need them in the areas that they want to live in.

The third step along the path was to tackle the issue of holiday homes and business rates. Second homes are not the same as holiday lets, but in some circumstances a second property is purchased as holiday-let accommodation and, in the case of holiday-let accommodation, properties are assessed for business rates, rather than council tax, if they are available for short-term lets for 140 days or more per financial year. Any property registered for business rates may qualify and, indeed, is likely to qualify today for small business rate relief.

Concerns have been expressed by many local authorities and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), that some second home owners may be exploiting what has been termed a loophole to reduce their local tax liability by declaring that a property is available for let, but making little realistic effort to let it out, potentially giving them access to small business rate relief and thereby meaning that they pay no rates or council tax whatever. It is only right that genuine holiday-let businesses can apply for the relief to which they are entitled, and we should not overlook the genuine benefits that short-term lettings can bring. However, I and the Government take extremely seriously any suggestion of council tax avoidance. That is why, following a commitment in the last Budget, we have launched a consultation on the local tax treatment of holiday lets; it runs until 16 January.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the example in Wales, and he was right to do so. It informed my thinking as we designed the consultation; indeed, the questions posed in the consultation are very much suggestive of an approach that has been adopted in Wales. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has already been encouraging his constituents to respond to the consultation, and I know that he supports the measures referred to in the consultation to strengthen the criteria under which holiday lets are liable for business rates.

The fourth measure to tackle the problem that we are discussing involves stamp duty. Moving beyond council tax, the Government have raised stamp duty rates for those buying additional homes. Since April 2016, anyone purchasing a second home has paid a stamp duty charge three percentage points above current rates. There were more than 300,000 first-time buyers in the past financial year alone; that is an increase of more than 5% on the year before.

The Minister is being generous with his time. I acknowledge that what he refers to is an important and welcome move by the Government, but of course the money raised goes to the Exchequer. The communities that suffer as a result of this issue are the local communities. At the same time, they have seen a 40% reduction in local government funding. Therefore, if we are taxing—however we do it—those who are fortunate enough to have a second home, surely the money should be spent in the communities that suffer.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and actually the next thing that I will talk about from the toolkit of things that the Government are doing is community housing plans and how the Government are directing the centrally raised money specifically into communities, such as his and mine, that have a high prevalence of second homes. But before we get on to those details, I will finish on stamp duty. It is worth noting the other significant support for first-time buyers in the form of the total removal of the need to pay stamp duty on homes worth up to £300,000. That will benefit many people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Government will also consult in January on a new stamp duty land tax surcharge of 1% on non-residents buying residential property in England and Northern Ireland, to help to control house price growth and so help to ensure that residents of the UK can get on the housing ladder.

As the hon. Gentleman said, money should be channelled back into local communities, and I am pleased to tell him that that is exactly what is happening. The Government’s community housing fund has allocated part of the additional revenue raised from the higher stamp duty rates to areas with the potential to deliver community-led housing. That specifically includes areas, such as his and mine, with high rates of second home ownership. The community housing fund will make £163 million available across England between April 2018 and March 2020, and has already provided funding for numerous schemes since 2016. I think that this addresses the hon. Gentleman’s idea of a council tax premium to generate funds. This is already happening in his own constituency: £2.36 million has been allocated to South Lakeland District Council in the first year of the scheme, in recognition of its position as one of the authorities with the highest density of second homes and most affected by issues of local affordability. The money included £90,000 towards sheltered housing in Windermere, funding for the Helsington Community Land Trust to provide additional homes in Brigsteer, and salary funding for a community-led housing officer post. I am sure that those schemes will be warmly welcomed by the hon. Gentleman and others across South Lakeland, and I look forward to seeing how the local authority plans to use the remaining grant that it has to support further such schemes.

The final issue is neighbourhood planning. The planning system now enables local residents to put in place neighbourhood plans that manage second home ownership—notable is the one in St Ives. It is right that local residents should have the opportunity to express their views on the design of their areas, including the second home ownership of new builds, and ultimately to approve neighbourhood plans via a referendum. I am pleased to say that more than 700 such plans, including a number across the wider Lake district, are now in force.

I want to touch on the hon. Gentleman’s point about planning. I hope that he will forgive me: as I am not responsible for planning policy, I cannot answer him directly, but I spoke this morning to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, who is responsible for planning and who is looking forward to his meeting with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can raise that particular issue with my hon. Friend. I am aware that the current case law around planning says that decisions on planning applications can be made only on the basis of a land use planning consideration. It is not clear that case law says that a switch from a primary home to a second home constitutes such a change, but the hon. Gentleman can discuss that with my hon. Friend.

To conclude, I am sympathetic to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. He makes a powerful case in representing his constituents and highlighting second home ownership constructively and positively. Although it is important to recognise that second home ownership can take different forms and deliver benefits, the Government recognise the potential issues faced by communities with a high proportion of second homes. That is why the Government have put in place the wide-ranging measures that I have set out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that although the dynamics of individual choice and local housing markets are complex and best addressed at local level, the Government have been proactive over the past few years and, indeed, very recently in playing our part to help to address the issues. I look forward to continuing the conversation on this issue with the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and others and with local authorities and communities so that we are doing everything we can to ensure that our local communities remain thriving, vibrant places that we are all proud to call home.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.