Owners of second homes and long-term empty homes in Carmarthenshire face council tax increase
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
Owners of second homes and long-term empty properties in Carmarthenshire will pay extra council tax from April next year. A majority of councillors approved a 50% premium on second homes and a 50% premium on properties which had been empty for one to two years, although there are exemptions.
The premium rises to 100% – or a doubling of council tax – for properties vacant for two to five years, and 200% for those empty more than five years. One empty property owner said she thought it was “legalised robbery”.
The decision by full council followed a lengthy and sometimes confused debate after amendments were introduced by the Labour opposition group and no-one seemed sure what they were voting for.
Plaid’s cabinet member for resources, Cllr Lenny, said Carmarthenshire had more than 800 second homes – plus 1,800 homes empty for more than a year – and that introducing the premiums would raise up to £3 million a year which would be invested in council services. Both types of property, he said, adversely affected areas.
“Turning empty houses once more into homes should result in less demand for new houses to be built on green fields,” he said. “Turning to second homes. These have been a burning issue in Wales for decades – at one time, literally. But that was in another era. That’s not the answer.”
Cllr Lenny said the answer lay partly in new legislation which aimed to ensure second home holiday lets were occupied for at least 182 days per year – thereby allowing the owners to qualify for business rates – with those that weren’t potentially liable for a council tax premium.
Second homes, he said, reduced the available housing stock and pushed prices beyond the reach of the likes of teachers and nurses. Potential tourism impacts will be discussed ahead of the new charges next year. Cllr Lenny said: “Our intention is to be fair with everyone.”
Cllr Gareth John, cabinet member for regeneration, leisure, culture and tourism, said the issue was complex. He said the primary factor was a “chronic lack” of affordable and suitable accommodation, especially for young people and young families, and that a second homes premium should be one of a range of measures.
Cllr John described tourism as “vitally important” and worth more than £400 million to the Carmarthenshire economy – it was the under-use of properties, he said, which had to be addressed.
Labour leader, Cllr James, proposed an amendment exempting properties on agricultural land from a second homes council premium, arguing that farmers had been encouraged to diversify into agri-tourism.
He also proposed exempting holiday let companies and “self-accommodation businesses”. He said it would be difficult for many of these operators to avoid a premium by renting their accommodation out for 182 days a year, due to reduced winter demand. Cllr James said the policy should be “data and not ideologically driven”.
Council leader Darren Price opposed the two amendments, saying people on the housing waiting list in Carmarthenshire were “begging” for a place to a live at a time when there were nearly 3,000 empty or under-used homes.
Premiums, he said, were the “morally right thing to do”. Cllr Price added that Labour’s Minister for Climate Change, Julie James, herself had said the “urgency and gravity” of the second homes’ impact called for further intervention.
Cllr James proposed a second amendment calling for a 100% rather than 50% premium on homes empty for one to two years. Empty homes, and shops, he said, were a blight on the community. Both amendments were voted down.
Cllr Kim Broom said she’d owned a holiday let for 21 years and seen many people come and go in the sector in that time. “Although it seems lucrative, it’s all dependent on the number of bookings you receive,” she said. In her view, due to the cost-of-living crisis and end of Covid travel restrictions abroad there was now an over-supply of summer holiday accommodation in the county.
Cllr Carys Jones said a quarter of Llansteffan’s 250 family homes were empty or second homes. Although she said there were high-standard business-registered properties which catered for the “very important” tourist sector, she said prices were unaffordable for local families.
Cllr Jane Tremlett said Laugharne faced a similar issue, despite the presence of three touring caravan sites, two glamping sites, a hotel, and several pubs with rooms and bed and breakfasts. “During the winter the population plummets,” she said.
Cllr Lewis Davies said the housing issue had led to a “brain drain”, and asked whether his children would be able to live in Ferryside. “It’s not possible for young people like myself to live there any more,” he said. Cllr Kevin Madge said there was a bungalow in Garnant which had been empty for 40 years and that he lost sleep when people came to him saying they needed somewhere to live. He said he was shocked to learn that there were second homes in his ward. In his view, more housing land was needed.
Cllr Janet Williams warned the premiums could cause “unintended outcomes” and have an impact on tourism.
Before the vote, Cllr James said he felt his amendments had been misconstrued, and that the idea had been to add sophistication to the policy. He added that there were empty council houses, and a need to build more homes. “When we are pointing the finger at the lack of housing options, we should also point the finger back at ourselves,” he said.
The council has brought more than 700 empty properties back into use over the last few years, but demand for accommodation is acute and there are some 4,500 people on the council’s housing register. Around half of Wales’s 22 councils have introduced council tax premiums on second homes, as have authorities in England. Several have brought in empty home premiums too.
One owner of a long-term empty house in Llanelli told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that she had no objection to paying full council tax, but that she opposed a premium. “I think Carmarthenshire Council are indulging in legalised robbery,” she said.
The woman, who lives in Swansea, said the empty house in Llanelli had a big garden and in her view did not lend itself to being a rental property, although she had refurbished and maintained it. She said she would now consider moving into it.
The woman added that she had rented out a house to students in Swansea for 25 years, and that the demands being placed on landlords were driving them out of the sector. She said she was putting the student house up for sale. “The balance now is in favour of tenants,” she said.
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