Tim Farron on Cumbria’s rural housing crisis

Tourism is the lifeblood of many of our most spectacular rural communities. Nut there is a downside for the people who live there all year round. Second homes and holiday lets mean that it can be difficult for local people to find somewhere to live.

Tim Farron raised this in a debate in Parliament this week. Here is is opening speech.

It is a huge privilege to serve our communities in Cumbria—our towns, villages lakes and dales, among the rugged beauty of England’s finest landscapes—yet the people who live in our communities are even more precious than the places themselves. We welcome those who see Cumbria as a holiday destination: a place for leisure and relaxation, and a place of peaceful serenity and exhilarating extremes. It is our collective privilege to be the stewards of such a spectacular environment for the country, yet our full-time local communities face an existential threat unlike any other in the UK. I am immensely grateful to have secured this debate, because the housing crisis that has faced our communities in Cumbria and elsewhere in rural Britain for decades has rapidly become a catastrophe during the two years of the pandemic.

For the last few decades, we have seen an erosion in the number of properties in Cumbria that are available and affordable for local people to buy or rent. What little I know of geology tells me that although erosion usually takes place over huge passages of time, sometimes a whole rockface may collapse or a whole piece of a cliff might drop into the sea in a single instant. That is what has happened to our housing stock during the pandemic. In the space of less than two years, a bad situation has become utterly disastrous.

I have been calling for the Government to take action from the very beginning, so I confess to being frustrated and angry that Ministers have yet to do anything meaningful to tackle the problem. As a result, many of us living in rural communities feel ignored, abandoned and taken for granted by the Government, and we stand together today as rural communities to declare that we will not be taken for granted one moment longer.

In South Lakeland, the average house price is 11 times greater than the average household income. Families on low or middle incomes, and even those on reasonably good incomes, are completely excluded from the possibility of buying a home. Although the local council in South Lakeland has enabled the building of more than 1,000 new social rented properties, there are still more than 3,000 families languishing on the housing waiting list. Even before the pandemic, at least one in seven houses in my constituency was a second home—a bolthole or an investment for people whose main home is somewhere else.

In many towns and villages, such as Coniston, Hawkshead, Dent, Chapel Stile and Grasmere, the majority of properties are now empty for most of the year. Across the Yorkshire Dales, much of which is in Cumbria and in my constituency, more than a quarter of the housing stock in the national park is not lived in. In Elterwater in Langdale, 85% of the properties are second homes. Without a large enough permanent population, villages just die. The school loses numbers and then closes. The bus service loses passengers, so it gets cut. The pub loses its trade, the post office loses customers and the church loses its congregation, so they close too. Those who are left behind are isolated and often impoverished in communities whose life has effectively come to an end.

At this point, Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake suggested that a Governemnt scheme might be helpful – which it is in the way that a milk jug might be in holding back a tsunami.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. He has mentioned that his local authority has brought forward some affordable housing—I cannot remember the number he said—but that it was all rented. The Government have created a new scheme, the first homes scheme, to allow discounted properties to be purchased as affordable homes. Is the hon. Gentleman pursuing that with his local authority, to try to make more of those properties available to his local first-time buyers?

Tim continued:

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that the first homes scheme cannot be instead of other schemes but has to be in addition to them. By the way, in a community like ours where the average household price is 11 times greater than the average income, the first homes scheme will not help people; it will not even nearly help them. Maybe if their income was seven times less than the average house price, it might just help them, so it is a good scheme, but it is barely even the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I have spoken to the previous Secretary of State to ask him to make our area a pilot, but that does not touch the sides, if I am honest. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has raised a really important point.

During the pandemic, I have spoken to many local estate agents across our county. Around 80% of all house sales during the past two years have been in the second home market. Those who have the money to do so are rethinking their priorities, investing in the rising value of property and seeking a piece of the countryside to call their own, and we can kind of understand that. I do not wish to demonise anybody with a second home, to say that there are no circumstances in which it is okay to have one, but let me be blunt: surely, someone’s right to have a second home must not trump a struggling family’s right to have any home, yet in reality, apparently it does. Every day that the Government fail to act is another day that they are backing those who are lucky enough to have multiple homes against those who cannot find any home in the lakes, the dales or any other rural community in our country.

Bob Seely from the Isle of Wight shared his constituency’s perspective and suggested amendments to the forthcoming Planning Bill:

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. It is clear from some of the questions that have been asked, and from what the hon. Gentleman is saying, that this is a complex issue. I will give an example: on the Isle of Wight, the village of Seaview has 82% second home ownership, so it has been effectively stripped out of permanent life, and Bembridge and Yarmouth have similar problems. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a group of us have written to the Secretary of State with over two dozen ideas for how to make the upcoming housing and planning Bill—if it does come—much better and stronger, and give it a much wider base of support? We have put forward recommendations, and some options on second home ownership.

Tim was sceptical that the Government’s heart was in allowing that Bill to change things:

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his helpful contribution, and for his ongoing concern and interest in this issue, which is very laudable indeed. In one sense, this issue is not complex at all. If a person is forced out of their community, it is not slightly complex; it is just bloomin’ tragic. Yes, there is a planning Bill, and I look forward to that. I might feel all sorts of dread about that Bill, but it is an opportunity to do something. However, every single day is an opportunity to do something. The opportunity was two years ago, a year ago, last week and the week before, and the Government do nothing.

The simple reality is that it is not that complex to do things that will shift the dial and save the dales and other rural communities that are being undermined in the way they are. That is what so frustrating to us: there are people from all parties in this Chamber today, and there are other people who would be here on a normal Thursday if it were not this time of year and if there were any votes today. The reality is that we know there is a problem, and we see no action from the Government. Every day that goes by is another day wasted. It is not complex—it is just tragic.

It is not just a rural issue, although it may predominantly be rural. York is clearly a good example of somewhere that suffers in a different way. I will come to the issue of holiday lets and some of the answers in a moment. It will rob communities of their very life if we do not intervene. I am not someone who is anti-market—I am anti-broken market, and this is a broken market. This is our opportunity to do something about it.

Excessive second home ownership is a colossal problem in our communities. The purpose of this debate is to shake the Government out of their demonstrable and inexcusable inaction and to take the action required to save our communities.

The crisis has become a catastrophe, and it is not just about second homes. Holiday lets are an important part of our tourism economy. In the Lake district, we argue and believe that we are the most visited part of Britain outside London. Our tourism economy is worth more than £3 billion a year and employs 60,000 people—comfortably Cumbria’s biggest employer. It is a vibrant industry and, by its very nature, a joyful one; I am proud to be a voice for Cumbria tourism in this place. Those 60,000 people working in hospitality and tourism need to live somewhere. Some 80% of the entire working-age population of the Lake district already works in hospitality and tourism. We need to increase the number of working-age people who can afford to live and raise a family in our communities, yet the absolute opposite is happening at a rate of knots.

During the pandemic, in South Lakeland alone—just one district that makes up part of the Lake district—there was a 32% rise in one year in the number of holiday lets. I assure the Minister that those were not new builds; they were not magicked out of thin air. Those new holiday lets emerged in 2021 following the lifting of the Toggle showing location ofColumn 87WHcovid eviction ban. That is not to blame the ban; it was a good idea, and it had to come to an end at some point. My point is that that rise was over a tiny period of time: less than 12 months, in reality. The fact is that this time last year those new holiday lets were someone’s home.

In Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Kendal, Windermere, Staveley, Ambleside, Coniston, Grasmere, Grange and throughout Cumbria, I have met people who have been evicted from their homes under a section 21 eviction order—which, incidentally, this Government promised to ban in their last manifesto.

Among the hundreds evicted, I think of the couple with two small children in Ambleside, who struggled to pay £800 a month for their flat above a shop in town; they were evicted last spring only to find the home they had lived in for years on Airbnb for £1,200 a week. I think of the mum near Grange, whose teenage son had lived in their rented home his whole life; they were evicted only to see their property on Airbnb a few days later for over £1,000 a week. I think of the tradesman from Sedbergh, who had served the community for 15 years; a few days after he was evicted, his former home was also on Airbnb for £1,000 a week. There are hundreds more individuals and families in the same situation right across rural Cumbria.

I have, and I will come to some suggestions in a moment, including on how we might tackle the issue—to put it neutrally—of Airbnb. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and the need for such a scheme is huge. Undoubtedly, the ease with which people can turn a home into a holiday let is part of the problem. The consequences are phenomenal. The people I am speaking about are real human beings; I could pick dozens and dozens more to talk about. What it means for them is that they have to leave the area. This is no less than a Lakeland clearance: whole communities ejected from the places where they were raised, where they had chosen to raise their families, or where they had set down roots to live, work and contribute to our economy.

Will the Minister accept that this is both morally abhorrent and economically stupid? We have businesses in Cumbria that, having survived covid so far, are now reducing their opening hours or closing all together because they cannot find staff anymore. We have people isolated and vulnerable because they cannot find care staff. There are friends of mine in that situation, in part because the local workforce has been effectively cleared out and expelled. In each case I mentioned earlier—in Sedbergh, Ambleside and Grange—the people could not find anywhere else to live in those communities or in the wider community. They have had to uproot and move away all together. How is the economy of Britain’s second biggest tourism destination expected to deliver for Britain’s wider economy without anybody to staff it?

What about the children who have to move away, and are forced to move school, and leave behind friends and support networks? What about those left behind in our dwindling communities, whose schools are now threatened with closure? I have spoken to MPs, not just those who are here and for whose presence I am massively grateful, but from rural communities right across this House. Most of those, particularly in England and Wales, are from the Conservative party. There is a kind of private agreement that this is a catastrophe. They see it in their own constituencies: the collapse of affordable, available housing for local communities is killing towns and villages in Cornwall, Northumberland, Shropshire, Devon, Somerset, North Yorkshire, the highlands of Scotland and rural Wales, as well as in my home of Cumbria.

Our rural communities want two things from the Minister today: first, a sign that he understands that this catastrophe is happening; and secondly, a commitment not to wait for the planning Bill, but to act radically and to act right now.

The point that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) makes is important; the UK Government have powers and I will come on to talk about the things that they could do. There are things that the Welsh Government could do, and there are some things that they are already doing that the UK Government are not doing—we could learn some lessons from them. There are also some powers that local authorities and national parks have, but those are very limited. It is essentially about taxation and planning law, in particular; those things come from both the devolved and central Administrations. However, it is a perfectly sensible and intelligent point that the hon. Member makes.

Now might be the moment, having asked the Minister to acknowledge that the catastrophe is real and to act, for me to give him some ideas about how he might act. What could and should the Government do? I propose seven steps to save rural communities. First, they could make second homes and holiday lets new and separate categories of planning use. This would mean that councils and national parks would have the power to put a limit on the number of such properties in each town and village, protecting the majority of houses for permanent occupation. Secondly, they could provide targeted, ringfenced finance so that planning departments have the resources to police this new rule effectively.

Thirdly, the Government could follow the lead of the Welsh Government and give councils the power to increase council tax by up to 100% on second homes in the worst-affected communities. That would serve to protect those communities and generate significant revenue that could then be ploughed back into their threatened schools and into new affordable housing for local families. A quick assessment shows that, in Coniston alone, that would raise £750,000 a year, which would make a colossal difference to that community.

Fourthly, the Government could force all holiday let owners to pay council tax, as they can avoid paying anything at all if they are deemed a small business.

Fifthly, the Government could give councils and national parks the power to ensure that, at least in some cases, 100% of new builds are genuinely affordable, and provide funding to pump prime those developments, possibly in part via the proceeds of a second homes council tax supplement. We have a deeply broken housing market. Of course, developers can sell any property that they build in our rural communities for a handsome price, but that is surely not the most important thing. Is it not time to stop building simply to meet demand, and instead build to meet need?

Sixthly, the Government could simply keep their manifesto promise and ban section 21 evictions.

Seventhly, the Government can ensure that platforms such as Airbnb are not allowed to cut corners and undermine the traditional holiday let industry. Their properties should have to meet the same standards as any other rental. Failure to do that is unsafe, unfair and creates a fast track for the Lakeland clearances to continue and escalate.

I want to be constructive, and I hope that I have been. I called for this debate not to throw bricks at the Government, but because I love my communities and I am despairing at what is happening to them. I am determined that Ministers should understand the depth and scale of this catastrophe, and that they should take radical action right now. I support free markets, but unregulated markets that are obviously broken are not free at all. That is when they need the visible hand of Government to referee and intervene.

The Government will have noticed that, in recent months, rural Britain has demonstrated at the ballot box that it will not tolerate being taken for granted. This debate gives Ministers an early opportunity to demonstrate, in return, that they will stop taking us for granted, standing idly by while rural communities are rapidly destroyed.

To those of us who live in Cumbria and other beautiful parts of our country, it is obvious what is happening, and it is heartbreaking. Likewise, it is obvious to us what needs to be done, and it frustrates us, to the point of fury, that the Government have so far failed to even acknowledge the problem, much less to do anything about it. Today is their chance to put that right. Rural Britain is watching.

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20 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 8th Jan '22 - 11:01am

    In our society, everyone has a much right to buy a house in an attractive part of the country as anyone else, whether they have family connections with that area or not. If demand for such property exceeds supply, prices rice and those able and willing to pay more are likely to get the property they wish. Those who can not afford to pay the prices required do not have more rights to own such property than people who can afford the prices – that is just they way life is.

    So, we can address this problem in two ways – by increasing the supply of houses on the market by allowing much more building, and by seeking to reduce the demand for houses. The first ‘solution’ may damage the attractiveness of the areas that are currently in high demand, while the second could be done by having much greater taxes on second homes. If people are still willing to pay those higher taxes to purchase holiday homes, at least the local council will have more income to invest in other ways to support the communities.

  • It is good to see Tim Farron securing this Westminster Hall debate on second homes and holiday lets in rural communities. Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake Westminster debate is an officer for the APPG on Land Value Capture chaired by John MacDonald MP along with Caroline Lucas MP and Helen Hayes MP.
    To effectively tackle these urgent issues requires cross-party working at both national and local level. It would be good to see LibDem MPS taking an active role in the APPG and housing select committees.
    Kevin Hollinrake in his comnents notes that 28% of higher value properties (over £2m) in the UK are held by non-resident investors and over 20% of all investment property in London. He suggests a 1% wealth tax on property held by overseas investors would raise about £4billion. to £5 billion per year.
    ALTER Alter has long advocated a land value tax assessed on owners not tenants as part of a a wide sweeping tax reform program. Owner occupiers of median value properties would have a homeowners allowance that would mean they would not pay LVT. The tax would be payable on properties above 50% median value in any given local authority area i.e. a higher allowance in high value areas.
    Second homes and holiday lets that are not owner occupied would not benefit from a homeowners allowance and so would pay LVT o the full market value of the land.

  • Second Home owners are like locusts – harmless individually but destructive when they swarm.

  • Very true Jim. I think that’s what can make it tricky for people to get their head around. As far as most of us are concerned, when we visit a rented holiday home we are contributing to the local economy, and even if you are buying, you are just one person. If others are doing it – why shouldn’t you?

    There’s a case to be made for saying London also suffers from 2nd homes. Lots of people have their 2nd home there and there’s a housing shortage despite rocketing prices, but it doesn’t have the same impact on year round jobs as experienced in rural areas, so it’s probably right to focus specifically on rural housing in this case.

    Bumping up council tax for 2nd homes is the easiest way for councils to very slightly level the playing field. It’s not going to solve it, but as Brad says, councils can use that extra money. But who decides which is the 2nd home?

    In addition, any property let out for short term lets for more than a fortnight (?) per year should require planning permission and payment of a fee. Councils could place caps, subject to regular review.

    If they had the budget, councils could build, or work with private partners to provide mini holiday villages with managed chalets/apartments designed with tourists in mind, taking a bit of the heat out of the holiday let market, but ensuring that tourists have somewhere suitable to stay.

  • Katharine Pindar 8th Jan '22 - 8:43pm

    I am so glad that Tim has raised these appalling problems in his forceful speech. I hope all our MPs will back his call to the Government to act, and the APPG support his proposed remedies. I am particularly moved by his account of people renting their houses for years being ousted, for the owners to make the quick buck of Airbnbs, and by the way children can be uprooted and village communities wrecked by the increased prevalence of holiday lets.

    I feel there should be more protection for renters who have stayed for years in a house which has come to be their home. I should hate to grow old in a rented house with no security of tenure. I remember knowing a middle-aged man who had devoted his life to looking after his parents being uprooted from their long-term rented home when both had died. I also remember a neighbour, an African young woman, doing excellent social work in our nearby town, having to deprive the town of her services and move to Manchester, because the owner of the property in my village just outside the National Park decided to sell rather than continue with renting (which however she continued for several months more with a less satisfactory tenant). Best wishes, Tim, and many thanks.

  • Another problem Tim didn’t mention is the ageing of the population in these areas. The old fogies with an opposltion to any development which would improve the job prospects of young people.

  • Barry Lofty 9th Jan '22 - 8:59am

    [email protected] a very ageist comment if you don’t mind me saying, there are many actions by SOME young people that leave a !ot to be desired?? I hope you remember your words when you reach old age?

  • Tristan Ward 9th Jan '22 - 9:03am

    As our Rural/Farming Spokesman I think there is an open goal for Tim in this report of the Public Accounts Committee:

    Environmental Land Management Scheme – Public Accounts Committee report more detail needed.

    Government fails to explain how “changes in land use will not simply result in more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of food production being “exported” to countries with lower environmental standards.”

    DEFRA “concedes its confidence in the scheme looks like blind optimism without the details of what it has planned.”

    https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/8357/documents/85142/default/

    Reform of agricultural support away from the CAP was one of the promised benefits of Brexit of course.

  • Matt Haines 9th Jan '22 - 9:33am

    Rather than attack the public facing side of the housing market (buying, selling, renting), why don’t we look at the backend of the market- credit and lending. Demand is fuelled by the credit given to buyers, as only a tiny minority of buyers buy cash.

  • Brad Barrows 9th Jan '22 - 10:00am

    @Matt Haines
    With respect, the point Tim was making is that market forces alone were not leading to a desired outcome since local people were being priced out of the market. The only changes that will help achieve Tim’s objectives are changes they will actively discriminate against non locals or actively discriminate against those seeking to buy second properties.

  • Barry Lofty 9th Jan '22 - 10:29am

    I have experienced the remarks of ” outsiders moving into our village and taking homes from the locals” and it was not a second home it was our first ownership and we were in our late forties, since selling up and moving back South to be nearer our family we have learnt that our former home in a village in the Vale of Evesham is now surrounded by large housing estates built on prime agricultural land, not a great advert for food sustainability in our country in a very productive agricultural area of the UK, but I suppose the locals will be able to buy a home locally, if they can afford it, and the farmers who sold up will have become richer?
    I know I have not contributed much to all the complex issues around this discussion but I hope I have made the case for not taking things as simply black and white?

  • David Garlick 9th Jan '22 - 10:36am

    As a long term holiday at home family (no flights damaging the planet) I can say that the cost of renting has rocketed too adding to the ‘profitability’ of lets and rents. Holidays abroad will consequently become more financially appealing and more damage to the planet goes along with that…
    Tinkering will not be enough here. There is need of major and far reaching reform as so ably outlined by Tim.
    Support for Community owned land and housing could contribute too.

  • This is possibly off-topic, but action also needs to be taken about property being sold to overseas owners.

    On a TV property programme some while ago, a young couple from east Asia said there was a housing shortage at home and no-one was allowed to own more than two homes, so they invest in property here! That pushes up prices and needs to be stopped.

    Councils need to be allowed to serve Compulsory Selling Orders to overseas owners. Where the owner is an anonymous company based in a tax-haven, it should first be served with an Unexplained Wealth Order. If no satisfactory explanation is received within a specified time limit, confiscation of the property should result.

  • Matt Haines 9th Jan '22 - 11:08am

    @Brad I was well aware of what Tim was saying, which is why I said what I did.

    You idea around taxation will do nothing but drive up house and rent prices as investors seek to recoup tax money.

    Those is glass houses Brad.

  • Peter Martin 9th Jan '22 - 11:41am

    @ Jim,

    “Councils need to be allowed to serve Compulsory Selling Orders to overseas owners. Where the owner is an anonymous company based in a tax-haven, it should first be served with an Unexplained Wealth Order. If no satisfactory explanation is received within a specified time limit, confiscation of the property should result.”

    There is no need to actually confiscate the property but it could be requisitioned, and sublet, for a period of a few years to give the owner time to sell the property or rent it out on suitable terms to someone who actually might need it.

    It doesn’t sound like a policy which is very Lib Demmish though! That might involve a lot a hand-wringing but in the end not coming up with anything which might be termed illiberal.

  • Peter Froggatt 10th Jan '22 - 8:41am

    The problem is created by the Lake District National Park Authority and the NIMBY “locals” who oppose almost every planning application for affordable housing. Similarly, In the South East very few can afford to live in London where they work so they live somewhere cheaper and commute. There are many very cheap houses just outside the National Park (Barrow, Millom etc.)

  • Brad Barrows 8th Jan ’22 – 11:01am………..In our society, everyone has a much right to buy a house in an attractive part of the country as anyone else, whether they have family connections with that area or not. If demand for such property exceeds supply, prices rice and those able and willing to pay more are likely to get the property they wish. Those who can not afford to pay the prices required do not have more rights to own such property than people who can afford the prices – that is just they way life is…………

    It may be ‘how life is’ but it doesn’t make it right..

    We are in a time of an acute housing shortage,, Would your reasoning apply in an acute water shortage when some could fill swimming pools, water golf courses, etc. whilst the less priviledged were unable to meet their basic needs; drinking, washing, etc.?

    I currently live very near a Suffolk town where 60% of homes are holiday homes; Pubs close, the police and fire stations are gone, etc. When a one bedroom flat costs between £400,000 and £500,000 what hope even for a high wage earner, let alone a nurse, to afford a home?
    Jim Dapre (8th Jan ’22 – 7:07pm) is absolutely right,,When we lived in France we watched as village after village became ghost towns for 9 months of the year..

  • Peter Watson 10th Jan '22 - 12:59pm

    I agree with the concerns about problems caused by second homes and holiday lets, but I wonder if there is a significant overlap between those with the means to buy such properties and the voters targeted by the Lib Dems which might give the party something of a dilemma in how it positions itself nationally on this issue.

  • >If they had the budget, councils could build, or work with private partners to provide mini holiday villages with managed chalets/apartments designed with tourists in mind, taking a bit of the heat out of the holiday let market, but ensuring that tourists have somewhere suitable to stay.
    These already exist, they are known as holiday villages and caravan parks…

  • David Evans 14th Jan '22 - 5:32pm

    Tim is absolutely right in what he said in parliament.

    However, in one regard the mess the government has created is even worse than that. As Tim indicates, second home owners can avoid/evade Council tax [my choice of words not his] by claiming the property is a holiday let and so become subject to business rates, but they don’t have to pay any because they are deemed to be a small business.

    However, we all know that the Conservatives’ solution to any economic problem is to throw money at groups who generally are their supporters/cronies/pub landlord. Hence over the last year, as small businesses providing accommodation they will have received Covid grants of the order of £30,000!!

    Thus they have once more skewed the housing market even further to the detriment of local workers. Quite simply the whole situation is a total mess.

    Personally I would have considered using the debate to throw metaphorical bricks at the Government, but even better is to throw real ballot boxes full of Lib Dem votes at them in May’s all out elections for the new unitary authority they have decided to impose on us.

    If anyone without elections this year can spare some time to help us please do. There are local members prepared to put people up and, on a nice day, canvassing can be akin to a nice walk in the country interspersed with a series of usually very pleasant chats!

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