Tim Farron: Three ways to save our rural heartlands from second home ownership

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.

Are the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District being compromised by second home owners?

We are proud to be a place of welcome. However 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.

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.

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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.

Tim Farron is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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.

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 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. Several of our 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.

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.

Despite the loneliness agenda, the Government has 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.

I am determined to give our communities the best chance to defeat the threat of second home ownership and there is a clear set of actions that the Government could take 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.

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 has not extended those powers to second homes.

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.

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.

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.

Tim Farron is the Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale. He spoke in a parliamentary debate on second homes – this is an edited version.