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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I start by congratulating 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.