Overview: Local needs must come first

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The Independent Online

Second-home owners who have been used to a 50 per cent discount on their council tax bills could be paying much heftier bills from next April. South Hams District Council in Devon, for one, is set to impose the maximum 90 per cent allowed under new legislation. They justify this by pointing to the 11.5 per cent of properties that are used as second homes and the acute shortage of low-cost housing in the area. The plight of local buyers is equally contentious in Torbay, north Devon, Somerset... and the list goes on. Villages with a high proportion of homes owned by temporary residents have become too expensive for locals, whose incomes have barely moved in comparison with house prices. With this in mind, it would be easy to see any increase in taxes on second-home owners as a declaration of war. But, apart from the fact that no one can seriously imagine that it would deter anyone from buying, it is likely that these same purchasers support the idea of paying more. While there will always be those who live in a weekend bubble, the vast majority make a point of supporting local shops and businesses. They may not use the school and bus service, but that doesn't mean that they are unhappy about contributing towards them.

In any case, the tax increase is not in itself going to solve the issue of housing shortages. Take Exmoor National Park, which is as popular as it is beautiful and as such is convinced of the need for radical measures. They would like to see an end to open-market development in favour of affordable housing. In a review of new homes conducted three years ago, they found that 23 per cent of properties were used as second homes and 30 per cent by retired people, of whom 77 per cent came from outside, mainly the South-east. Of the fully occupied homes, only one in 10 of those living in larger houses and one in five living of smaller properties were local. Ruth McArthur, the principal planning officer, says that house prices within the national park have doubled in five years and the average price is now £225,000 - in an area where the average income is £12,000 to £15,000. Exmoor is tackling this by proposing that all new homes should be low-cost and for local people, with a 10-year residency qualification. "It is very sad that they cannot afford to stay in the area and all the surveys we have done in villages and parishes show that this is the most pressing issue. We have to prioritise land for local needs."

Although no one wishes to victimise second-home owners, it appears that those looking to buy in areas such as national parks will find obstacles in their path. In the Peak District, for example, only those with a strong local connection or who are moving into the area for employment can live in the new housing.

Malcolm Prescott, director of Webbers estate agents in west Somerset, is the first to appreciate the extent of the housing crisis. Prices have risen by as much as 40 per per cent in the last couple of years, although this year have fallen to a more stable 8 per cent. In Minehead, a two-bedroom starter home is now around £115,000 - up from £85,000. A couple buying their first property are unlikely to be able to afford much above £90,000, he says. What he feels is lacking is an overall strategy for the area, rather than village by village. "There are people with land outside the present building line who are willing to sell at a reasonable price specifically for local low-cost housing. It might mean more housing in place rather than being scattered around, but I can't imagine a young couple objecting to having to drive a few miles to work if the price is a new house."