Second Homes and Holiday Lets: Rural Communities — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 6th January 2022.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:30 pm, 6th January 2022

I will be guided by you, Mr Sharma. Unless people are desperate, I will not take any more interventions. Members have the opportunity to speak after I finish.

The point that Robin Millar makes is important; the UK Government have powers and I will come on to talk about the things that they could do. There are things that the Welsh Government could do, and there are some things that they are already doing that the UK Government are not doing—we could learn some lessons from them. There are also some powers that local authorities and national parks have, but those are very limited. It is essentially about taxation and planning law, in particular; those things come from both the devolved and central Administrations. However, it is a perfectly sensible and intelligent point that the hon. Member makes.

Now might be the moment, having asked the Minister to acknowledge that the catastrophe is real and to act, for me to give him some ideas about how he might act. What could and should the Government do? I propose seven steps to save rural communities. First, they could make second homes and holiday lets new and separate categories of planning use. This would mean that councils and national parks would have the power to put a limit on the number of such properties in each town and village, protecting the majority of houses for permanent occupation. Secondly, they could provide targeted, ringfenced finance so that planning departments have the resources to police this new rule effectively.

Thirdly, the Government could follow the lead of the Welsh Government and give councils the power to increase council tax by up to 100% on second homes in the worst-affected communities. That would serve to protect those communities and generate significant revenue that could then be ploughed back into their threatened schools and into new affordable housing for local families. A quick assessment shows that, in Coniston alone, that would raise £750,000 a year, which would make a colossal difference to that community.

Fourthly, the Government could force all holiday let owners to pay council tax, as they can avoid paying anything at all if they are deemed a small business.

Fifthly, the Government could give councils and national parks the power to ensure that, at least in some cases, 100% of new builds are genuinely affordable, and provide funding to pump prime those developments, possibly in part via the proceeds of a second homes council tax supplement. We have a deeply broken housing market. Of course, developers can sell any property that they build in our rural communities for a handsome price, but that is surely not the most important thing. Is it not time to stop building simply to meet demand, and instead build to meet need?

Sixthly, the Government could simply keep their manifesto promise and ban section 21 evictions.

Seventhly, the Government can ensure that platforms such as Airbnb are not allowed to cut corners and undermine the traditional holiday let industry. Their properties should have to meet the same standards as any other rental. Failure to do that is unsafe, unfair and creates a fast track for the Lakeland clearances to continue and escalate.

I want to be constructive, and I hope that I have been. I called for this debate not to throw bricks at the Government, but because I love my communities and I am despairing at what is happening to them. I am determined that Ministers should understand the depth and scale of this catastrophe, and that they should take radical action right now. I support free markets, but unregulated markets that are obviously broken are not free at all. That is when they need the visible hand of Government to referee and intervene.

The Government will have noticed that, in recent months, rural Britain has demonstrated at the ballot box that it will not tolerate being taken for granted. This debate gives Ministers an early opportunity to demonstrate, in return, that they will stop taking us for granted, standing idly by while rural communities are rapidly destroyed.

To those of us who live in Cumbria and other beautiful parts of our country, it is obvious what is happening, and it is heartbreaking. Likewise, it is obvious to us what needs to be done, and it frustrates us, to the point of fury, that the Government have so far failed to even acknowledge the problem, much less to do anything about it. Today is their chance to put that right. Rural Britain is watching.