Money News: Call for 'impact tax' to stop local people losing out

A new "impact tax" levied on second homes in Britain's rural hotspots would help ease the housing crisis for local residents, a government-commissioned report has proposed.

The levy was one of a number of measures suggested last week by the Affordable Rural Housing Commission (ARHC), set up to find ways of helping communities in the countryside.

Local people, especially young couples and families, cannot afford to get on the property ladder because wealthier people from towns buy up housing for weekends and holidays - particularly in "honeypot" areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District.

To this end, the impact tax, along with local restrictions on "right to buy" schemes and greater government housing subsidies, should all be considered to ensure that the next generation is not priced out of the countryside, the ARHC said.

The 12-member body also stated that at least 11,000 new affordable homes needed to be built each year in market towns and villages to meet demand.

ARHC chairman Elinor Goodman said: "If we don't act now, rural communities [will]... become dormitories for the better off and places where people go to retire."

According to figures from the Halifax, the average price of a house in a rural area is 6.7 times local average annual earnings, compared to 5.6 in urban areas.

Bank accounts: Co-op's helping hand for convicts

Prisoners are being given the chance to open a bank account while still behind bars, as part of a 12-month pilot scheme launched last Wednesday by the Co-operative Bank.

The initiative, which is being tried out at the Category B Forest Bank prison in Pendlebury, Greater Manchester, will allow prisoners to set up bank accounts in the final days before their release.

An account is generally needed before you can get a job but, to satisfy anti-money laundering regulations, it requires proof of identity and address - which most prisoners don't have.

Under the new scheme - to be rolled out across the country next year if the trial is successful - prison staff will be able to confirm the ID and address of a convict, so the account can be opened.

Even though the scheme is being run by the Co-op, prisoners will be able to open an account with the bank of their choice.

Premium bonds: Rates are cut by National Savings

National Savings and Investments has cut the prize fund rate on its premium bonds and the interest payable on its variable savings accounts.

From 1 June, the tax-free prize fund rate will fall from 3 per cent to 2.95 per cent, while interest on the Investment Account will also be reduced by 0.05 per cent for all customers.

While the government-backed savings provider insists there will still be more than 1.27 million prizes awarded each month on the premium bonds, the monthly prize fund total will fall from £76.6m in May to an estimated £75.4m in June.

Although the Bank of England base rate hasn't moved since August 2005, NS&I said the changes were due to "changing market conditions and costs".

Elsewhere there was better news as NS&I increased the interest paid on new savings certificates by between 0.15 and 0.4 per cent. The certificates run for either three or five years and pay a fixed return that is guaranteed to beat inflation.

For example, the new three-year index-linked savings certificate (13th issue) will offer interest equivalent to 6.08 per cent for higher-rate, or 4.56 per cent for lower-rate taxpayers - if the headline rate of inflation (currently 2.6 per cent) stays the same for three years.

Property: 'Make sellers' packs voluntary'

Home Information Packs (HIPs) came under fire again last week when the Building Societies Association (BSA) called for the documents to be made voluntary.

From June 2007, sellers will be required to produce HIPs, which are designed to shift the responsibility for surveys and searches from buyers on to vendors.

The estimated cost of a pack is as much as £1,000, and failure to provide one will be punishable by a fine.

The Government argues that HIPs will speed up the house-buying process and make chains run more smoothly. However, eight in 10 building society chief executives believe that this won't happen because home valuations aren't included in the packs and buyers will still have to do the legwork and pay for this service.

They worry that HIPs will add costs without any benefits and could lead to supply problems in the future as people rush to sell before the June 2007 deadline.

The chief executives argue that making HIPs voluntary would allow market forces to determine the demand - and how they will operate. It would also give buyers and sellers time to acquaint themselves fully with the packs.

"With so much uncertainty among consumers and the industry over how the packs will work, it seems wrong that it will be an offence to sell a house without one," said Adrian Coles, director of the BSA.

"Making them voluntary will lessen any negative impact on the market."

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