Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by the South West Conference of Local Council Associations (EMP 46)

  1.  The Conference is the regional body for South West England for the County Associations of Parish, Town and City Councils. The "local government nearest the electorate". Our area comprises the seven "counties" of the standard region and our grass-root membership is some 1,500 Local Councils. These range from Weston-super-Mare Town Council (which has an electorate in excess of that for some District Councils) and Truro City Council and other Best Value parishes, which have budgets close to £1million per annum each, to the smaller rural parishes where the electorate numbers below 300.

  2.  The County Associations of Local Councils throughout the region have each concluded at their own policy fora (whether a formal AGM or a County Committee Meeting) that the number of empty homes and the lack of affordable housing within the region is a serious issue that must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The issue seems to centre on three of issues.

    (a)   The presence of second homes (in addition to holiday let properties which are treated as business property);

    (b)   The lack of financial incentives to repair and bring back into use the flats so often found over retail and other market town High Street properties; and,

    (c)  The lack of a policy that delivers sustainable affordable housing in rural settlements.

  3.  Taking each of these in turn you will notice that our solutions are essentially financial.

  4.  We are convinced that the delivery of government policy is best achieved by ensuring the full use of economic and market forces wherever possible. It may not have missed your notice that the Councils in membership of our County Associations are not in receipt of any form of direct government grant-aid. All our costs are borne directly by the local tax-payer or charge for services payer, this is a luxury of directly and locally elected, accountable, local authorities. Our members provide local services for residents and for visitors alike and it is generally felt that the present system does not provide a fair distribution of local tax-payers contributions to the providers of local amenities. Increasingly community and leisure facilities are provided by City, Town & Parish Councils rather than the more distant District Council. This is becoming more noticeable in seaside resorts.

  5.  In many parts of the region the tourist economy is a substantial driver for employment and prosperity. Serviced properties be they in hotels, bed-and-breakfast houses, or self-catering properties provide a significant input to the local economy. The presence in some settlements of a large number of second home properties where the property is used for only a part of the year; and, more often than not the majority of items required are brought down from the supermarket shopping near the first home provides little, if anything, for the local economy. Yet these property owners are able to drive the property prices up based on their very high incomes in relation to the local economy. These properties still require the full services of the local and other authorities in terms of roads access, fire cover, a weekly visit from the dustcart whether the house is in use or not etc. These services are all provided at a cost to the local taxpayers. This is a serious issue for all to see in places such as Helford River or Purbeck but is now reported as a significant and growing problem from counties such as Wiltshire and Somerset. The Associations are strongly in support of the proposals contained within the Rural White Paper to give an option to billing authorities to charge the full (two resident) Council Tax on second homes, indeed we would prefer to see a mandatory imposition in place of the option. We hope that the forthcoming Local Government White Paper will include this as a matter of Policy for inclusion in the Bill that is likely to follow.

  6.  The reduction in use of the "over the shop" accommodation is a serious issue for those for whom it was historically the first step one the road to independence. For others it provided long term housing. There needs to be an incentive through the tax system to encourage the re-conversion of such property into residential units. The Income Tax system includes some incentives for the letting of property, perhaps there is scope within a VAT reduced rate to provide some further incentive. The use of a reduced rate to favour re-construction would alleviate the present penal levy of 17.5 per cent on the cost of the work. This rate must be viewed in comparison with the zero rate applicable to new, usually, green-field, construction. The Associations again favour the use of existing mechanisms that directly affect the economics of the situation rather than other forms of encouragement which are often not delivered other than in the form of "hot air".

  7.  The Government and other political parties have realised the importance to the market town and smaller settlements of having a balanced community. All ages and skills need to be represented in a community to make it stick together. The need for affordable housing measured against the wage-rates of the local economy is still one of the most important policy issues in the south west region. Whenever Planning issues are debated there is a presumption in favour of the affordable local housing provision and a clear expression of horror at the look-alike estates targeted at the incomer. There is a role for the new resident but not in such numbers and at such house values that the local people feel forced out of their own community. Again we favour use of economic instruments to achieve the end result. There is a feeling in the region that the enforcement of the planning and development control processes is far too lax. The key question is whether local people should make decisions that affect their locality or whether such matters are really for a distant Planning Inspector who does not have to live with the social, economic and environmental consequences.

Peter W Lacey

Regional Secretary

South West Conference of Local Council Associations.

September 2001

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