Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

The lack of affordable accommodation for permanent residents of many rural and coastal communities is a long-standing problem, as is the related controversy around the ethics and economics of second homes.   Many villages have witnessed their younger generation bleed away, as first-time buyers are priced out of the market. This reality has profound and complex consequences in both social and structural terms. Problems range from a shortage of employees in certain sectors, to the emotional and financial costs of generations being separated. This leads to grandparents being unable to help with the practicalities and stresses of childcare, increased loneliness for some older people, and  long journey times for individuals caring for elderly relatives. Yet it is also true that there are also voices arguing that the benefits brought by the tourist industry outweigh the disadvantages, and pointing out that holiday cottages are only one factor in a multi-faceted picture around population decline.

Perspectives on the second home debate undoubtedly vary, and the approach taken by authorities is ultimately a question of political policy. This means that there is a lot at stake with regard to the location of decision-makers, as well as the powers vested in them. In Wales, the executive has announced that from April 2023, Local Authorities will be permitted to impose 300% council tax on second homes and long term empty dwellings.  In addition, properties that are available to let for at least 140 days, and are in fact rented for 70 or more days, will be subject to rates rather than council tax.

This development has not gone unnoticed by people living in rural and coastal areas beyond the Welsh borders, including Cornwall, and some have voiced opinion that this would be a desirable step in their own context. However, as members of Mebyon Kernow (a Cornish nationalist party) have observed, being an English Local Authority, Cornwall Council does not have power to implement such a policy. Cornwall effectively has the same powers as any other English county, and the Central Government is responsible for determining the amount of council tax which can be charged.

It is only fair to point out that by no means all Cornish voices agree that following Wales’ example would be desirable, and reservations have been expressed by Liberal Democrats in particular. Notwithstanding, it remains true that if the Cornish nation had a devolved administration akin to that of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, it would be in a position to have an internal debate and choose its own direction on the matter, free from the constraints of Westminster. Needless to say, this would have knock on consequences for owners of holiday cottages living outside of Cornwall, who at present have the ability to influence Whitehall’s policy, but (depending on the arrangements in place and their personal circumstances) might not have a vote in Cornish elections if devolution took place. Equally, what about the position of people born in Cornwall, who moved away to seek work and have no current residence there?

This, in itself, raises an interesting question about democracy: who should have the franchise and why?   In a democratic society, should qualifications to vote be based on legal status (e.g. citizenship or nation of birth), a residence requirement or a hybrid arrangement?  The United Kingdom has a tradition of asymmetric devolution and also operating different voting systems for a variety of popular votes held for a wide range of purposes (e.g. qualifications for voting for candidates for the Welsh Parliament, or Scottish Independence referendum), meaning that a Cornish Parliament would not have to be based on one of the existing models.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Cornwall will ultimately have a devolved administration, and it is not on the cards for the immediate future. Nonetheless, the significance of devolutionary powers in the context of the second home debate has understandably attracted attention, given that it is a striking example of the significance of political decisions for people on the street, and the immediacy of their impact in certain cases.  The truth is that the potential imposition of a 300% tax increase in just over twelve months, and the economic and social ripple effect that this would generate, is neither remote nor abstract.   The consequences of this kind of legislative action are transformative for the lives of both individuals and communities, and the ability to vote on such a change cannot be taken lightly.


Related Articles

People in Cornwall like the idea of Welsh 300% council tax hike on second homes North Wales Live (11/3/22)

Cornwall Second Homes: 300% tax hike a “great idea” BBC News  (10/3/22)