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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:08 pm on 6th January 2022.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 2:08 pm, 6th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend Tim Farron.

Like other Members here today, I represent a rural and coastal constituency. North East Fife is very popular with tourists—and why would it not be? The East Neuk is known as a hidden gem, a string of pearls, with its beautiful fishing villages of Crail and Elie, St Monans, Anstruther and Cellardyke; beaches and cliffs and nature to walk on—I tackled the Elie chain walk scramble with my son last year—and the sea for swimming and sailing; it has local food producers and a burgeoning craft alcohol industry; and all that is before moving on to St Andrews with its history and golf.

Tourism is clearly a vital part of North East Fife’s local economy, but I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend on the need for a balance. Tourism is only sustainable when it works with and enhances local communities. In many respects, the communities in North East Fife continue to thrive even outside of tourist season. Over Small Business Saturday before Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit the inaugural Largo arts winter weekend, where 30 artists opened their homes and studios to showcase and sell their works. Between covid and the weather, there were arguably not many tourists, but it was a fantastic and vibrant day showing the strengths of those living in our communities.

A persistent issue for those living in North East Fife, as for other constituencies mentioned here today, is the unsustainable proliferation of second homes and holiday lets. Details from Fife Council housing services for March 2021 show that, at a minimum, almost a 10th of all the properties in the East Neuk were second homes. I say “at a minimum” because the data does not include 14 smaller villages where there are fewer than 30 second homes, it does not identify where long-term empty properties are second homes and, crucially, it does not record holiday lets at all. So the real figures are likely to be significantly higher, with some anecdotal estimates placing the number closer to half of all properties.

No community can thrive when half of all private properties are holiday accommodation. A constituent wrote to me recently, noting that during the last 25 years numbers at the local primary school had fallen from just over 100 pupils to 30. That is not good enough for the families in North East Fife or elsewhere. It is not the sign of a thriving community where children will be given opportunities to flourish as they grow up. Others have mentioned the ongoing impact that that has on other services. We all run campaigns as MPs to keep our bus services and to keep our schools and other public places open, but we find ourselves in a vicious cycle because of this problem.

As others have mentioned, these properties drive away families and drive up house prices. Last August it was reported that property prices along the East Neuk rose by more than 26%, which is fantastic if you are on the property ladder, but less so for young people and growing families, who find themselves priced out. As Selaine Saxby referenced, there is an impact on councils and housing. There has always been a shortage of council housing in North East Fife, with people forced to become homeless.

I have mentioned the success of many local businesses, but no one’s income grew by more than a quarter last year, and no local business can work without employees. Like other areas, North East Fife has really struggled with employment in hospitality. There are vacancies in establishments such as the Michelin-starred Peat Inn, which has been forced to cancel lunch services owing to a lack of staff.

I welcome the actions of the Liberal Democrats on Fife Council, who brought a motion to consider the use of control orders. Those are not a silver bullet, but they do attempt to strike the right balance in our communities and, importantly, give local people a say.

I am conscious that many of the proposals mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale fall into policy areas that have been devolved to the Scottish Government. The option taken by the Scottish National party in Holyrood was to propose the licensing of properties to regulate proper usage. The Scottish Government withdrew those proposals prior to the Holyrood elections in May, having committed to respond to stakeholder concerns about the licensing scheme through a working group. However, I am sorry to say that that working group has not gone well. In August, tourism bodies, having highlighted the lack of significant change to the legislation, particularly where it impacted on traditional self-catering and bed and breakfasts, resigned from the group en masse. Since then, the group has given evidence to Holyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee, outlining its view that the current plans would be hugely damaging to the Scottish tourism economy, particularly as we recover from covid.

I understand the frustration of those living in city areas, where noise from partygoers in rentals can be a real issue, but the solution of the legislation being outlined in Scotland will not resolve the issues experienced in rural and coastal communities such as North East Fife. My MSP colleague, Willie Rennie, continues to raise those issues in the Scottish Parliament.

So what can be done for North East Fife in Westminster? Fiscal policy could be used to encourage the sale of properties as primary residences. The Liberal Democrats have previously called for the holiday let tax loophole to be closed and for mortgage tax relief to be removed from holiday lets. Just as important as tangible policy change is the need for a consistent approach between the devolved Administrations and Westminster, as Robin Millar, who is no longer in his place, alluded to.

Hospitality and tourism are vital for communities across the four nations of the UK. As we have seen with differing covid regulations, sometimes people do not think twice about travelling across borders to where the rules are different. I want hospitality, tourism and the communities in North East Fife to thrive, and I want them to thrive in North Devon and in Westmorland and Lonsdale, so I ask the Minister to commit to conversations with his counterparts in the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations to ensure that no community ends up losing out in a race to the bottom on these measures.