Our housing market is broken: let’s put first homes first, second homes second

Luke Pollard
© Andrew Roland/Shutterstock.com

Our housing market is broken. It’s in our rural and coastal communities where the problem is most severe: house prices are surging and they are out of reach for people on average and low incomes. Tenants are being turfed out of their homes to make way for second homes, holiday lets and Airbnb conversions. Enough is enough.

The low-wage, rural economy means local people on average wages can’t afford to live in the communities where they grew up. This is wrong – and the pandemic has done nothing but turbo-charge the crisis. Thanks to a sell-off of council homes, there is no longer a safety net for far too many local families. The private rented sector cannot fill the gap.

Nowhere is the problem worse than the South West. Over a quarter of England’s second homes are registered in the West Country. In Cornish communities like St Minver, St John and St Merryn, more than a third of properties are second homes. Some South Devon villages around Salcombe have less than 10% of homes being used by local people. Meanwhile, in cities like Plymouth, the local hotel trade has been devastated as homes are flipped to Airbnbs.

The South West is beautiful. It is no surprise that people are holidaying in our region, and visitors are more than welcome. But welcoming tourists must not come at the expense of local people being able to live in their own communities.

How do we fix the broken system? It really is simple: a relentless focus on first homes, not second homes. That’s why, working with Labour councillors on Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council, we’ve come up with the First Homes, Not Second Homes manifesto – a radical five-point plan that I want everyone in Labour and beyond to support.

First of all, let’s give councils the power to quadruple council tax on holiday lets and empty second homes. At a time when local people are denied homes, we need an economic disincentive against keeping houses empty.

Second, we need a licensing scheme for second homes, holiday lets and Airbnbs – and we need to set a minimum floor on the number of homes for local people as opposed to second homes, holiday lets and Airbnbs. That floor must be at least 51%, so that no community can be dominated by folks who don’t live there. Then, let’s give councils the power to adjust it upward to 60%, 75% or even 90% and use the licensing system to enforce this.

Third, hollowed out communities don’t sustain the essential community services we all need. Councils should have the power to introduce an affordable community infrastructure levy on empty and under-used second homes – to support the last shop in the village, the pharmacy, the post office, the pub.

Fourth, we need to focus on building first homes, not second homes. That means building more genuinely affordable zero-carbon homes – to buy, to rent and to socially rent – with a preference and priority for local people. In particular, housebuilding should prioritise key workers on low wages that make our communities run – the nurses, the shop workers, the teachers, the care workers, the farm workers. How can we stand by whilst the people who keep our rural and coastal communities alive are being priced out?

Finally, let’s introduce a discount lock for future renters and purchasers of these affordable first homes. We cannot allow these properties to be lost in the market blizzard of second-home and holiday-let purchasers after the first family moves on.

This manifesto is simple but bold. But we need bold action if we are to stop our rural and coastal communities being hollowed out by second homes and holiday lets. Over half of Labour’s target seats are in rural and coastal areas, so this is not an issue we can dodge or shy away from. To succeed in these communities, I want Labour to adopt a ‘First Homes Not Second Homes’ approach, giving local councils and communities the powers to decide their own destiny. This is not rocket science: let’s put first homes first, and second homes second.

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