This week, South Hams District Council (SHDC) declared a housing emergency. As one of the first District Council’s in the country to do so, it is unlikely to be on its own for long. We are all acutely aware of the housing crisis in the South West. From a shortage of long-term rental properties to thousands of Airbnbs, to land-banked land, to unaffordable ‘affordable homes.’ The list goes on and on and the picture becomes all the bleaker.
After what has been the busiest summer on record for the South West, it is more than appropriate that such a motion should have passed through our local council. Cllr Judy Pearce and her team have not just recognised the problems faced by residents and those wishing to get on the housing ladder, but have proposed several steps to address this issue and make property ownership more accessible for those who live and work in the area.
Success in politics is fleeting but it is with huge pride that I, with the support of SHDC, led the charge to close the business rates loophole around second homes. The legislation has been promised and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has confirmed we are likely to see it put into place this winter. No longer will second homes be able to avoid paying their fair share of council tax by registering for business rates.
Closing the business rates loophole is but one part of the puzzle. This week’s announcement by SHDC offers even greater opportunities to address this crisis. So, with the proposed planning reforms set to come before Parliament, we have a real opportunity not just to update an outdated system but implement changes that will make a huge difference to our housing market.
SHDC has introduced a strong Joint Local Plan, but for it to work buildings must be built. The need to meet our targets is not a box-ticking exercise but a locally agreed plan that will help to improve supply and provide housing for those who seek to work and live in South Devon. All too often, land with planning permission remains undeveloped as its value increases. This land banking strategy impacts our supply and has a dramatic knock-on impact on the price of future properties. Introducing council tax to those plots of land after a period of time will help focus developers’ minds and ensure that the properties we need are actually built.
While South Devon attracts a great many tourists, we are not just a visitor economy. Airbnb clearly contributes to our local economy, but at the time of writing, there are some three thousand Airbnb properties versus nineteen long-term rental properties. The ease with which properties can be rented out, placing increased stresses and strains on our local resources and infrastructure, must be reviewed. Such a review should include whether they have planning permission, whether they are paying council tax or business rates (as appropriate) for the accommodation, whether they comply with safety regulations, and whether they are paying appropriately for waste disposal. Understanding the impact of holiday rentals on the area will help to inform how we can take future steps on this matter.
I have written many column inches on this topic and spent many hours speaking in the chamber of the House of Commons. I will continue to campaign and lobby Government Ministers to act and to reflect on the need for sensible solutions in places like South Devon. Slowly but surely, progress is being made and when councils - both district and council - work together with MPs, then the weight of argument and sense of urgency is increased. This week’s reminder is yet another example of the need not just to offer words, but to take drastic action and to ensure that future generations can live and work in the area.