Michael Gove vows to end ‘scourge’ of empty second homeson June 8, 2022 at 6:35 pm

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Owners of unoccupied properties would be hit with higher council tax under “levelling up” plans.

St. Ives in Cornwall

Image source, Getty Images

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has vowed to end the “scourge” of unoccupied second homes, as part of government plans to boost housing.

Mr Gove said a new bill making it easier to charge higher council tax on empty properties in England would “bring life back” to communities.

He also said new powers to force landlords to rent out empty shops would regenerate urban areas.

But Labour said the legislation would not be enough to help struggling areas.

The new powers are in the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which started its journey through Parliament on Wednesday.

The government has said “levelling up” economic imbalances between regions is a priority, but has faced criticism that its plans are vague.

The proposals over second homes are among a range of planning powers for England contained in the bill.

A separate planning bill containing sweeping plans to replace England’s case-by-case application system with new rules based on zones was abandoned earlier this year, after a backlash from Tory backbenchers.

The government has said it wants to redirect new housing towards under-developed “brownfield” areas in urban areas, and has set higher housing targets for England’s 20 largest towns and cities.

Among provisions in the levelling up bill:

  • Councils in England will gain extra powers to force landlords of empty shops to rent out their premises
  • They will also get extra powers to make compulsory purchases designed to contribute towards regeneration
  • Neighbours will be allowed to hold “street votes” to approve or reject house extensions in their area

The new bill will also allow local authorities, from April 2024, to double council tax on owners of second homes that are furnished but unoccupied.

They will also be able to charge the higher rate on unfurnished empty properties after just one year instead of the current two.

It follows a separate announcement introducing new requirements for owners of holiday lets, who can avoid council tax and pay a reduced rate of business tax instead, to prove their properties are in fact being rented out.

Ministers argue the new powers will benefit people in areas, particularly beauty spots, where second-home ownership has driven up the price and availability of local homes to buy and rent.

But Liberal Democrat Tim Farron, who represents a constituency in the Lake District, said for many people in rural areas buying or renting a home had become a “pipe dream”.

He said the government needed to go further, by making holiday lets a “separate category” in the planning system – which he argued would give local councils “more control” over housing in their areas.

In Wales, the Labour-run Welsh government plans to allow councils to charge up to four times the standard level of council tax on second homes.

‘Back of an envelope’

For Labour, shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy said the bill “contains more aimed at dealing with housing and planning than it does on levelling up,” and would not “turn around” lower economic performance outside London.

She added that under-performance reflected “the brutal reality of a decade of underinvestment” outside the capital.

She called for details on the government’s plans for “street votes”, which said said appeared to have been “drawn up on the back of an envelope”.

She also urged the government to explain further proposals in the bill to replace the system by which property developers negotiate contributions towards local infrastructure and affordable housing.

Ministers say their new levy will give councils more certainty about what money will be raised. However, the details have not been announced and are subject to a an ongoing consultation.

Ms Nandy said there was “no clarity in the bill” about whether the new model would raise more or less money – something MPs were “entitled to know” as it progresses through Parliament.

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