Leading Article: Make second-home owners pay up

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THE SUREST SIGN of a property boom is when we hear complaints that rural people are being priced out of the market by the Mercedes-driving classes snapping up weekend cottages in search of unspoilt nature. Viewed as part of the big picture, this is a shame, but the argument about a free market in property in this country was lost some time in the 16th century or thereabouts. And generally the arrival of moneyed incomers is a boost to the local economy, even if it does create chocolate-box ghost villages from Monday to Friday. With the decline of agricultural employment, the weekenders at least need someone to stock their fridges and weed their gardens.

What annoys Liberal Democrat councillors in the Lake District is that second homes pay half council tax, a confusion left over from when Michael Heseltine ditched the poll tax. He could not decide whether the new tax was a property tax or a tax on people geared roughly to their ability to pay.

The justification for the half-rate for second homes was that their owners make fewer demands on local services. But that was always fatuous and open to abuse. It makes sense to tax property, so let us tax it consistently. As for "ability to pay", owning a second home is usually a good indication that that condition is satisfied. Of course, it is typical that it takes Lib Dem councillors to remind Labour ministers of the heady days of socialism back in 1993, when Jack Straw was charged with responding to the new council tax: the automatic 50 per cent discount for second homes would go, he said, leaving it to the discretion of local councils whether to charge. Such radicalism was dropped from the manifesto, but should now be restored.

Let the weekenders pursue Wordsworth's romantic dream - "Free as a bird to settle where I will" (on Saturdays and Sundays anyway). But let them pay for the privilege.