homelessness and second homes
by George Monbiot (18.06.99)
It really did look, for a moment, as if the Government were going to address Britain's most pressing cause of injustice. But optimism, once again, has made idiots of social campaigners. Tony Blair's administration turns out to be more callous and more mendacious than they could possibly have believed.
There is no greater inequality in this country than that some people should have two homes while others have none. There are 166,000 officially homeless households in England. In Britain as a whole, though the figures haven't been fully collated, there are roughly 250,000. There are also 224,000 second homes. The similarity of the numbers is no coincidence. Every time a second home is purchased, another family is shoved out of the housing market.
It is not hard to see how this happens. Rich people from the cities turn up in picturesque villages and buy up the houses at prices which local people couldn't possibly afford. The locals are forced into the towns. As housing in many towns is already desperately over-stretched, the result is that someone gets displaced from the market.
You might have imagined - as I did - that a government which claims to be committed to social justice would seek to do something about this grotesque replacement of poor people's necessities with rich people's luxuries. But despite repeated appeals, it has flatly refused even to remove the tax incentive encouraging it. When houses were subject to rates, second home ownership was too expensive for all but the super-rich.
When rates were replaced by the poll tax, second home owners had to pay twice. But today the Government gives you cash back on second homes: you need pay only half the usual council tax on a house you don't inhabit all the time. In the Netherlands, by contrast, extra taxes make the habit unthinkable. A further loophole in Britain allows co-habiting couples to avoid capital gains tax, if they register their two homes under different names.
In June, the Government created the perfect opportunity for discouraging second home ownership - it announced that it would bring an end to the exemption of empty homes from council tax. But, to the horror of homelessness campaigners, it deliberately excluded second homes from the review, targetting only those houses which remained completely empty all through the year. Faced with a choice between depriving the poor of their homes and upsetting readers of the Mail or the Telegraph, Tony Blair takes the former option every time.
The result is a cannibal feast, as the rich prey on the lives of the poor. This month, the Daily Telegraph carried a "12-page second home special" advising its readers on how best to enjoy this tax exempt luxury. "Ten years after the frantic rush to acquire a country or seaside bolthole collapsed," it enthused, "buyers are back with a vengeance. ... There is one difference, however: ... in many cases buyers are looking for second homes as substantial as their first."
"House-partying," the paper revealed, "has not been so vibrant since the 19th century". It advised guests to bring whole foie gras, "the very best Parma ham" and magnums of champagne. Hunter Davies, a journalist who makes much of his Lakeland credentials, boasted about his decision to buy back into his birthplace, so that he can now enjoy the winter in a large house in London, and the summer in a large house in Loweswater. That both houses remain empty for half the year, and that his rural retreat could have been the sole home of a family from the region he claims to love and defend, appears not to bother him in slightest.
There are, the Telegraph admits, one or two disadvantages. "The Friday afternoon drive is a nightmare" and on Sunday you have to "start thinking about the ghastly return journey". There is the horror of "finding that a meal you've carefully pre-prepared for when you get there has melted in the boot." You can be "ripped off left, right and centre" by the locals. But the displacement of those locals from their homes is scarcely mentioned. Instead the paper rejoices that "the economics of buying a second home have never been better." The low rate of council tax is, thankfully, "an anomaly that, despite Government murmurs, does not seem under threat."
Buy a second home and you push another family onto the streets. But don't worry: the Government, like most of the press, will leave your conscience, and your wallet, untroubled.