HC Deb 31 March 1981 vol 2 cc162-6

4.3 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 in relation to the definition of `material change of use of buildings' for development and control purposes. The purpose of the Bill is to try to take steps that will alleviate the second homes and holiday homes problem that affects parts of Wales severely and that is also felt in many other rural and holiday areas. Hon. Members will be aware of the existence of a problem from the extensive publicity given to arson attacks on second homes in Wales over a period of about 15 months, during which time between 40 and 50 second homes have suffered fire attacks.

I make it perfectly clear that I and my party can in no way condone such actions. We condemn violence of all forms, and quite clearly the burning down of houses cannot solve housing problems. The arson attacks are, however, only the tip of a problem that has grown over the past two decades, and the tensions in certain local communities have been manifested in other less violent ways that have not caught the headlines. There have been protests at auction sales, paint daubings and bad feelings. The time has come when Parliament can no longer keep its head in the sand and positive action is needed to show in a practical way that the legislature is aware of these problems and is prepared to act to ameliorate them. Such action by Parliament is essential if we are to create a climate in which violence will not survive.

I wish to make two other matters clear. First, I am not advocating steps to try to eliminate second or holiday homes. There are many houses in my area—remote from towns and villages, or perhaps stuck on top of mountains or in the middle of forests—in which local people do not wish to reside. It is perfectly reasonable that they should be used as holiday homes. Clearly the income from the tourist industry is an important factor in a county such as Gwynedd. It is, however, a question of scale and of balance.

Secondly, I should make it clear that this is not a problem that is unique to Wales. Difficulties associated with the degree of penetration of second homes have been experienced in areas such as the Lake District and the South-West. Positive steps have been taken by many overseas countries, such as Switzerland and Denmark and by places such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, to try to meet the problem. However, it is particularly acute in areas such as Gwynedd, in North-West Wales, for a number of reasons that are partly historic, partly economic and partly cultural.

Today, 31 March, is a significant day to discuss the problem, since for many people in Gwynedd it is the last day of their winter lets. They are now expected to clear out of the homes that they rented over the winter so that the owners can let those houses, at rents that local people cannot afford, to the holiday market, or so that they can use them for their own leisure purposes.

The magnitude of the problem in Gwynedd can be seen from the fact that a survey of second homes, carried out by the planning department of Gwynedd county council in 1979, showed that there were over 8,000 holiday homes in the county. That was at a time when there were about 4,600 families on the waiting list for local authority rented housing in the county. It is not difficult to imagine the strong feelings that develop when an abundance of housing stands empty for large parts of the year while families in the same vicinity cannot get a roof over their heads. To pretend that a problem does not exist is to fly in the face of reality.

Welsh Office figures published last Friday indicate that the problem may be even more severe and that the number of second homes in Gwynedd could be as large as 14,000. Those recent figures indicate that as much as 25 per cent. of the entire housing stock of the district council area of Dwyfor, in my constituency, are second homes and that 21 per cent. of the housing stock in Meirionnydd are also second homes. Within those average figures are concealed villages, such as Llanengan, Abersoch or Llanbedrog, in which the proportion of second homes is over 40 per cent.

In villages where the number of second homes has grown to that extent there are real problems for the residual community who live there round the year. In winter, the village may become quite dead, with half the houses empty, and it is difficult to maintain services such as shops, schools and buses. That leads to pressures on some of the remaining population to move away. In my area, which is 87 per cent. Welsh speaking, second homes bring another pressure in summer—a linguistic tension—that adds to the strength of feeling on the issue.

Last summer, in a debate on the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services gave an undertaking to hold "cross-government discussions" on the matter with a view to bringing forward a positive response to meet the problem. He invited representations from local authorities on the subject. In response, Gwynedd county council has submitted to him and to the Welsh Office a document that represents the wishes not only of the county council but of the Arfon, Dwyfor, Anglesey and Aberconwy district councils and of the national park authority for Snowdonia and that calls for specific steps to be taken to help alleviate the problems caused by second homes in some areas.

In that joint document, the local authorities state: Second home buyers have raised the prices of the older and smaller properties in the county to such an extent that local inhabitants who would otherwise buy them are unable to meet the market price particularly as wages and salaries in Gwynedd are considerably lower than the national average. The councils accordingly wish to emphasise the seriousness of the situation, the frustration and annoyance it causes to local people and the need for the Government to empower local authorities in the area to tackle the problem. Those local authorities, which cover the Conservative-controlled areas represented by the hon. Members for Anglesey (Mr. Best) and for Conway (Mr. Roberts) as well as my constituency, call for specific action.

The House may recall that some steps have already been taken in Acts to discriminate between first and second homes. For instance, the Housing Act 1974 provides that improvement grants should not be available for improving second homes. Likewise, in the Housing Act 1980, there are powers for the Secretary of State to designate areas where holiday homes problems may be acute. In the Finance Act 1965 exemption from capital gains tax was not allowed for second homes. In the Finance Act 1972 tax relief on mortgages for second homes was abolished.

Parliament has recognised the difference in status between first and second homes. The question to which we must now apply ourselves is how we can make further provision that will help to solve the continuing problem.

In its submission Gwynedd county council asks Parliament to consider three methods of tackling the problem. The first is action by local housing authorities in being allowed and encouraged, in certain areas, to buy up holiday homes when they come on to the market so that they can be let to local people on the waiting list for council houses. That has been undertaken to a certain extent in my area, but the Government are wholly opposed to it. I believe that the Government should think again on that matter, but that is not the objective of my Bill.

The second proposal made by Gwynedd county council is for higher rating on second homes. That proposal has recently been pressed at an inquiry in the Lake District, where a call has been made for a penal rate levy on second homes. However, the Brill, by its nature, is an inappropriate vehicle for such a change.

The third proposal by Gwynedd county council—and the one on which I am putting the Bill forward—is to allow local planning authorities in certain areas to define as a material change of use the conversion of a house from a first home into a second or holiday home. If a house is to be converted from an office or a shop, planning permission is needed. Similarly planning permission would be required for a change of use of a house into a second home.

My Bill proposes that those powers should be made available to local planning authorities in those areas where a problem is seen to exist. I suggest that those areas should include national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other areas designated by the Secretary of State, as he has already done, for the purposes of the Housing Act 1980.

The merits of the proposal are that it puts the powers where they can best be used—in the hands of the local planning authority. That is the body that knows the problems of an area and whether it is reasonable for a house to be converted into a second home. In remote areas that may be thought to be appropriate, but in the middle of a village, when half the village has already been bought up, the authority may withhold planning permission.

These provisions are non-bureaucratic. They are decentralised to the communities that they affect and flexible so that they meet the varying circumstances of different communities. Furthermore, they would not cost the Government any money to implement.

The Bill not does purport to solve the second home problem. It deals only with controlling a further escalation of the problem. A full solution involves many other factors, not least the economic factors relating to the ability of persons in one part of the country being able to afford a first home before others can afford a second one. But the Bill allows for a better balance to be struck between the varying interests involved in any community—the interests of those who are seeking a first home, those who want to buy a second home and not be subject to threats of violence, and those who want to sell their houses to one or other of those groups and to the community in which those houses are located. The failure to get the balance right has led to the strength of feeling on this issue in areas such as Gwynedd.

A Bill along these lines should be allowed to make progress because it is the specific request of the local authorities in my area who have to live with the problem. To block the progress of such a Bill would be to show that the House is turning a deaf ear to the representations of such areas and will do nothing but worsen what is already a serious and, in some cases, tragic problem. The Bill has the support of Members of all parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Tom Ellis, Mr. David Penhaligon, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Robin Squire, Mr. D. E. Thomas, Dr. Roger Thomas and Mr. Gordon Wilson.