Half-price council tax for second-home owners may be scrapped, says Meacher

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The Independent Online

Michael Meacher will propose scrapping tax breaks for second-home owners as part of the Government's drive to protect the countryside.

The Environment minister, who has a second home in the picture postcard village of Ampney Crucis in Gloucestershire, is planning to challenge ministerial colleagues with a plan to scrap 50 per cent discounts on council tax for about 500,000 owners of second homes in a rural White Paper.

Housing ministers have insisted that they have no plan to end the concession granted under the Tories and officials said last night that it was unlikely to be part of the forthcoming housing Green Paper. But Mr Meacher has told friends that the discounts, which are costing councils £164m a year, are "disgraceful and unjustifiable" and he would be raising it with colleagues.

Downing Street fears that curbing second homes could hit the middle-class voters. Mr Meacher caused consternation in the autumn when he floated the idea of using planning permission to curb second homes. But he has the backing of Labour MPs including Candy Atherton, who has many local people in her Falmouth and Camborne constituency who cannot afford homes because of the pressure on the market.

Some second-home owners can save around £500 on annual council tax bills. Those benefiting include many MPs who own homes in London in addition to properties in their constituencies. Cabinet ministers who have second homes include Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.

The taxpayer is having to compensate councils in areas such as the Cotswolds, Lake District, Peak District and the West Country, for the money it loses in local council tax receipts. Beverley Hughes, an Environment minister said: "If a local authority has a reduced tax base because it has a high proportion of dwellings subject to a discount ... it will receive more grant to compensate."

* Mr Meacher will defend the Government's "right to roam" legislation in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which is due for a second reading in the Commons today. The Tory environment spokesman Damian Green yesterday signalled his party would oppose it and back the landowners. He said Conservatives believed the best solution to enhancing access was to improve footpaths rather than "just let people on to land regardless of the effect on animal and plant life".