HC Deb 24 April 2001 vol 367 cc164-6
12. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

What recent assessment he has made of the operation of the council tax system with respect to second homes. [157192]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

In the rural White Paper, which was published in November 2000, the Government proposed, subject to consultation, to give local authorities discretion to charge the full council tax on second homes. We are currently preparing a consultation paper, which we intend to issue later this year.

Mr. George

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but is she satisfied that, after four years of this Government, my constituency still contains communities where homeless people live cheek by jowl with those who are the owners of second homes? Does the Minister agree that it is no longer acceptable that £200 million of taxpayer's money should be spent on subsidising the second homes of wealthy people when many thousands of rural folk do not even have their first homes? If so, why do the Government not get on with the task and introduce legislation now, instead of issuing consultation papers? Four years on, let us see some action.

Ms Armstrong

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have a statutory duty to consult. There are many reasons why some homes will remain empty. We want to make sure that we give people incentives to bring back into use homes that have been empty for a long time. We also want to look at the problem of homes that are empty because of this year's flooding. We want to be sure that the exemption scheme can be administered by local authorities, so that issues of local importance can be dealt with. For that reason, the consultation process must go further than the issue of second homes. At present, the exemption regime extends beyond second homes. We must get that matter right, so that all local authorities have the exemptions that meet the needs of people in their areas.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Surely the Minister knows that such a scheme has operated successfully in Wales for many years. Can she not get on and do something about this matter? We all know that the consultation that she announced to change the council tax funding formula has been delayed again and again. Is it not time that she either took action or left office and let us do so?

Ms Armstrong

I am always grateful for advice from the hon. Gentleman, who was so successful in persuading the previous Conservative Government to act that his party judges his seat to be one of the most vulnerable in the country. The Government will get on with doing things, and we will make sure that we take people along with us. That is why we will consult—to ensure that we produce legislation appropriate for the introduction of the necessary changes.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfort)

Does the Minister accept that the council tax system that operates in Wales remains a fairly blunt instrument when it comes to controlling the over-development of holiday and second homes in some communities? Given the Minister's commitment to give local authorities the maximum freedom in such matters, will she consider creating a new planning category for such homes? That would give local authorities control over granting or withholding planning permission if there is to be a change of use.

Ms Armstrong

The right hon. Gentleman goes way beyond the question. As he knows, Welsh local authorities can exercise discretion over council tax in their areas, but the planning regime is a different matter. The rural White Paper contained announcements on council tax, but not on planning. We are concerned that all local authorities should be able to act in the interests of the residents for whom they have responsibility. That is why the Government have been moving forward the agenda for local authorities in England. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will push the Welsh Assembly to do the same in Wales. As he knows, I have no responsibility for that.

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