Second Homes “Westminster Hall” debate Thursday 6 Jan

Selaine Saxby MP North Devon speaks passionately in debate organised by Tim Farron MP.

Minister of State Christopher Pincher promises to close a loophole “as soon as we can” and to introduce a tourist accommodation registration scheme “so that we can build an understanding of the evidence and the issues that second homes present“. Ah the evidence base!

“Westminster Hall” debates (actually conducted in the Grand Committee Room next to it) started in 1999. In contrast to the two main chambers, the room is laid out in a horseshoe shape. These debates give MPs an opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister. The motions are general, neutrally worded, e.g. “That this House has considered the matter of second homes and holiday lets in rural communities.” There is no vote for or against.

There is a formal batting order, which makes it relatively easy to skim the transcript (see here) for the salient points:

  • the MP whose debate it is to make an opening speech
  • backbenchers
  • frontbencher from the third largest party to sum up
  • frontbencher from the official Opposition to sum up
  • the minister to respond
  • the MP whose debate it is to sum up (if there’s time)

In this case, the debate was opened by Tim Farron Lib Dem (Environment and Rural affairs plus Housing, Communities and Local Government).

Selaine Saxby MP for North Devon made a strong case for the impact not just in her constituency but in Devon and Cornwall. (See text below).

Many constructive points were made on what could be done by the formal opposition shadow speakers: Patricia Gibson SNP as “third party” speaker (who mentioned the problems of Cornwall as well as Scotland) and Matthew Pennycock Labour shadow Housing, Communities and Local Government who referred back to Selaine Saxby. E.g. Devolve more  powers to local councils, increased supplement on second home stamp  duties and the  need for planning permission for change of use. (Easy to find at the end of the full transcript.)

The Ministerial reply from Minister of State Christopher Pincher was rather predictable, placing emphasis on the need to build, build, build and on the “Help to Buy” and “First Homes” schemes.

He stressed that the government has committed to close the loophole in the business rate system: “we will introduce our proposals to close that loophole as soon as we can”.

He also mentioned reforming the planning system and introducing a new infrastructure levy as in some way helping.

He went on: “I can confirm that we propose to consult on the introduction of a tourist accommodation registration scheme in England so that we can build an understanding of the evidence and the issues that second homes present, particularly when driven by the rise of online platforms such as Airbnb. We will launch that consultation later this year and will begin the process of a call for evidence in the coming weeks”. (aka: “kicking into the long grass”).

As Tim Farron replied: “I welcome the review that the Minister talked about. That is all good—but it is all we got. I was not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of urgency—in fact, quite the opposite. In the seconds that I have left, I want to say to the Minister that inaction is action. It is action on behalf of those who own multiple homes against our communities. I want to see an awful lot more than we have seen today. By the time a part of what we proposed is looked at in a review, which will take years because they always do, there will be another 32% [rise in one year in the number of holiday lets in one Lakeland District] and then another 32%, and the communities at risk of dying that I talked about earlier will be actually dead. We need urgency right now, so I ask for further meetings immediately. The Minister talks about the planning rules, but how about letting national parks pilot the differential in planning use categories? That, at least, would be a start, to demonstrate that it could be possible. I am disappointed by the lack of urgency, but I am grateful for the opportunity.”

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)

Extract from Opening Speech

….I have been calling for the Government to take action from the very beginning, so I confess to being frustrated and angry that Ministers have yet to do anything meaningful to tackle the problem. As a result, many of us living in rural communities feel ignored, abandoned and taken for granted by the Government, and we stand together today as rural communities to declare that we will not be taken for granted one moment longer.

In South Lakeland, the average house price is 11 times greater than the average household income. Families on low or middle incomes, and even those on reasonably good incomes, are completely excluded from the possibility of buying a home. Although the local council in South Lakeland has enabled the building of more than 1,000 new social rented properties, there are still more than 3,000 families languishing on the housing waiting list. Even before the pandemic, at least one in seven houses in my constituency was a second home—a bolthole or an investment for people whose main home is somewhere else.

In many towns and villages, such as Coniston, Hawkshead, Dent, Chapel Stile and Grasmere, the majority of properties are now empty for most of the year. Across the Yorkshire Dales, much of which is in Cumbria and in my constituency, more than a quarter of the housing stock in the national park is not lived in. In Elterwater in Langdale, 85% of the properties are second homes. Without a large enough permanent population, villages just die. The school loses numbers and then closes. The bus service loses passengers, so it gets cut. The pub loses its trade, the post office loses customers and the church loses its congregation, so they close too. Those who are left behind are isolated and often impoverished in communities whose life has effectively come to an end……

…During the pandemic, I have spoken to many local estate agents across our county. Around 80% of all house sales during the past two years have been in the second home market. Those who have the money to do so are rethinking their priorities, investing in the rising value of property and seeking a piece of the countryside to call their own, and we can kind of understand that. I do not wish to demonise anybody with a second home, or to say that there are no circumstances in which it is okay to have one, but let me be blunt: surely, someone’s right to have a second home must not trump a struggling family’s right to have any home, yet in reality, apparently it does. Every day that the Government fail to act is another day that they are backing those who are lucky enough to have multiple homes against those who cannot find any home in the lakes, the dales or any other rural community in our country…..

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 1:59 pm, 6th January 2022

Speech in full:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank Tim Farron for securing this important debate.

I feel like a stuck record for raising the issue of second homes in North Devon again. My constituency is not just rural but coastal, and many of the issues described by hon. Members are exacerbated many times over on the coast, where we have only the sea to draw on for extra residents or houses. Therefore, down the south-west peninsula, in both Devon and Cornwall, MPs have been highlighting this issue ever since I was elected. Although the pandemic has seen a perfect storm, resulting in a rush to purchase second homes in beautiful locations or to convert properties to short-term holiday lets, it is not a new problem. I was contacted during the 2019 general election campaign by the Croyde Area Residents Association, which was concerned even then that second homes accounted for 64% of properties in the stunning surf village of Croyde.

The issues around second homes are well documented with regards to a shortage of affordable properties for local residents. In the past year of the pandemic, we have also seen many evictions of local residents who have rented their homes for many years, so that owners can convert their properties to short-term holiday lets. North Devon has always welcomed second-homers and those visiting our beautiful coast in short-term holiday lets, but what we are now seeing is unsustainable, and we need action to address the problem before we become a complete ghost coast.

Like me, North Devon Council has written numerous times to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and now to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on this matter. In its most recent letter, North Devon Council detailed the following concerns about the critical situation facing our housing market. Average house prices in North Devon have increased by 22.5% in the past 12 months—the second-highest rise in England. There has been a 67% reduction in listings for permanent rental properties in 12 months—the highest reduction in the south-west, and the fourth highest nationally. There has been a 33% increase in the number of people on the housing register in 12 months, a 21% increase in the number of dwellings registered for business rates for holiday lets over 24 months, and a 7.5% increase in the number of second homes in just 12 months.

The number of properties advertised for permanent rental via Rightmove, compared with those available for Airbnb, really highlights the issue. Many of us had hoped the problem would have passed by the end of the summer, but at the start of November in Barnstaple, the main town in my constituency, there were 126 Airbnbs and two private rentals. In Ilfracombe, there were over 300 Airbnbs and three private rentals. In Lynton, there were 104 Airbnbs. In Woolacombe, there were 196 Airbnbs but not a single private rental on Rightmove.

The council’s housing staff are now dealing with a huge increase in the number of people presenting as homeless, and they have also seen a major shift in the type of people asking for assistance. These people are homeless simply because they are forced to present as such, as they have been evicted by landlords who wish to convert their properties from private residential use to short-term holiday use. Given the numbers I have mentioned, it is impossible for them to find alternative accommodation on the open market. I want to take this opportunity to thank the housing team at North Devon Council for their tireless work in trying to help families who find themselves in an incredibly difficult and stressful situation through no fault of their own.

Although tourism is a major part of the North Devon economy, the lack of housing available for permanent residential use is starting to have a major impact on the lives of far too many residents, as well as on local businesses and public services such as health and education, which are struggling to recruit because of the lack of housing and which are also suffering from existing staff leaving the area because of eviction and the lack of affordable housing. Major employers in North Devon have indicated that the lack of available housing is now being considered when deciding whether to invest in the area. Local schools and colleges, and the health service, cannot recruit quality staff because of the lack of housing. Even our much-loved North Devon District Hospital is struggling to find accommodation for just the handful of new students that started there this year.

The recent shift from permanent residential to holiday use, and the substantial increase in house prices, means not only that a permanent home is out of reach for many people living and working in the area. Public attitudes to new house building have also changed. Virtually every housing scheme in North Devon, particularly the larger ones, is meeting substantial opposition from the community, with many objectors citing fears that the properties will become second homes or holiday lets, and that they will invariably be unaffordable for local residents. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that viability challenges raised by developers mean that on average only around 20% of new homes built in North Devon are affordable, by any definition.

A proliferation of short-term holiday lets in an area not only changes the character of a neighbourhood but can also increase antisocial behaviour and noise nuisance, primarily because there is so little regulation of short-term holiday lets. We are already starting to see that, with an increase in the number of complaints received by the council relating to noise, antisocial behaviour, parties, hot tubs and so on.

I recognise that any intervention in the housing market has a huge risk of unintended consequences and potential increases in prices in some sectors, but I very much hope that some steps can be taken to level the playing field between the short-term and the long-term rental markets through the various current tax inequalities, to ensure that the short-term holiday let market is better regulated and that a change of use is required to convert properties from primary residence to holiday lets. It seems bizarre that some of the holiday lets in my constituency have to have a change of use to become a long-term rental, but the situation is not the same the other way round. Restrictions of just 10 months’ occupancy are imposed by local councils for good reasons at the time they were imposed, but those restrictions are now not being reversed. Support is needed for small district councils to enable them to confidently take those steps, if they are able.

We also need to take steps to bring back into occupation derelict properties that have been left empty for months or years. Councils have powers, but the processes are slow and expensive, and the proximity of my own home to derelict houses suggests such powers are not being readily acted upon.

Most people dream of owning their own home, and I fully support the Government’s ambition to help people to achieve that dream. To do that in places such as North Devon, we need to find a solution for increasing the supply of affordable housing and we need to review the guidance and tests in place to assess the viability of developments, to ensure that the level of affordable housing provided is not affected by issues such as an unreasonably high valuation placed on the land.

Our councils need more control and flexibility in access to funding to build affordable homes and to protect them for occupancy by local residents, so that they are available to future generations. New homes need to be available to those who want to live in these rural and coastal constituencies. There are innovative schemes such as rent to buy from companies such as Rentplus, community land trusts for small rural communities need to be more accessible to small planning authorities, and more needs to be done so that our local plans really do reflect the needs of our local communities.

Like many of my constituents, I would like the lights over Christmas to be on in my neighbours’ houses, but far too many closes like mine are deserted through the winter. I very much hope that the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has some plans, blue sky or otherwise. During the pandemic, this Government showed that we can act quickly when we need to. The time is now to address the imbalances in the housing market, before the lights go out for good and the whole of the North Devon coast becomes a winter ghost town.

One thought on “Second Homes “Westminster Hall” debate Thursday 6 Jan

  1. So will the government take the urgent action that is needed to solve this pressing problem of second homes in Devon?

    Tim Farron is very pessimistic.
    “I was not overwhelmed by a tidal wave of urgency—in fact, quite the opposite. In the seconds that I have left, I want to say to the Minister that inaction is action.”
    “and the communities at risk of dying that I talked about earlier will be actually dead.”
    The problem of Devon and Cornwall is that we are all good citizens and vote tory. A sniff of letting in the liberals might produce some action.

    Like

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