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The conservative case for doubling council tax

It can be difficult to build up a coherent ideological platform as a councillor. A sense of high-minded political idealism is far from necessary to notify the highways department that the pothole on Jubilee Road is getting worse, and your attention is usually better spent ensuring your own survival. It doesn’t take much to knock someone off the lowest rung of elected office: a misplaced development, a Guido Twitter trawl or a mistimed poppy is enough to threaten your political survival.

It’s also difficult because your primary challenge is often to mitigate the fallout from structural problems or policies that are beyond your power to change. You’re implementing a planning system clearly incapable of meeting demand, providing transport when budgets are being slashed and delivering social care when it’s in such high demand (and staff numbers are so low) that the system is basically gridlocked. 

Occasionally, Whitehall abandons enough power to give provincial mortals like us the chance to make a genuinely ideological decision. These opportunities are as infrequent, unreliable and unpredictable as your average Transpennine service. 

As part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, the Government proposed to open up more options for councils to introduce council tax premiums on empty properties and second homes. Last Wednesday, North Yorkshire County Council voted on whether to implement a doubling of council tax on second homes. I’m lucky enough to represent Scotton and Lower Wensleydale, sun-kissed and God-blessed, on NYCC. Wild horses couldn’t have stopped me voting for it.

Writing and voting in favour of doubling council tax is probably going to get me disbarred from this year’s Christmas parties at Tufton Street. As shown by Liz Truss’ leadership election, there is a whole branch of the party that thinks the only good thing about taxes is that eventually they turn people into Tories, and that tax increases like this are deeply unconservative.

Or are they?

There is a genuine, coherent conservative case for this huge increase on North Yorkshire’s 8,000+ second homes. You just have to be prepared to be branded a Red Tory to make it. Frankly I’ve been called a lot worse, and my fuel tank of courage is sloshing full.

Affording and justifying are two entirely different things

The housing problem is far from contained within North Yorkshire, and the scale of the problem is vast. Although Michael Gove reaffirmed the commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year, the government hasn’t actually met that target since 1977. According to Nationwide’s house price series, in Quarter 1 of 1975 the average house price was £10,388. By Quarter 1 of 1980 that had doubled to £22,677 (the inflation rate was not 100 per cent, before boomers tag me). There’s a reason that property “dwarfs the other biggest sources” as a major source of the wealth of the nation’s richest. House price increases have far outstripped wages, rising 20 per cent in the last five years. 

As a result of these huge increases home ownership rates are dropping, driven largely by a squeezing of young people out of the market. Since nearly half a million social homes have been lost since 2000, these young people are part of an increasingly large cohort who privately rent — but rents are soaring. Now more than 1.6m peopleare living in dangerously low-quality homes, plagued with cold, damp and mould — and without functioning bathrooms or kitchens”.

As the Centre for Cities contends, “there is not one single national housing crisis”. It’s a national crisis with regional variations. Things are bad in North Yorkshire, but by the Grace of God they are worse elsewhere. First-time buyers in London, for instance, need nine times their annual salaries to get on the first rung of the property ladder.

The regional variation in London’s market, exacerbated by a weak pound, is the huge amount of property owned by overseas investors. That isn’t entirely dissimilar to North Yorkshire’s.

North Yorkshire has the highest number of second homes in the region, attracted by some of Britain’s most attractive areas: the Moors, the Dales and coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey. Our problem, like London, is not just supply but ownership. Second home owners in London may be from Singapore and ours may be from Surrey, but different boots feel the same to the person being kicked.

Critics of this policy will argue that we live in a free society, and that housing is a free market. They’ve worked hard, and they can afford to have a second home. Why should they be punished for it?

For post-liberal conservatives, affording and justifying are two entirely different things. As Adrian Pabst writes in Postliberal Politics, “Individual fulfilment based on personal autonomy has to be balanced with mutual flourishing.” Without enough supply, housing is essentially a zero-sum game. Our vote in the Council Chamber on Wednesday is therefore a choice on how the scales are balanced between Pabst’s mutual flourishing and personal autonomy.

We have to price people into our communities, not out of them

The average cost of a property in the second home hotspot of the Dales is nearly £400,000. The weekly wage in North Yorkshire is just over £530. Prioritising the personal autonomy of second home owners means forcing people who grew up in places like the Dales to look elsewhere to live, outside the communities they grew up in. This deracination of our villages means an impoverishment of what Michael Sandel calls “our common life”. Post-liberals agree, as Pabst writes, “that the task is to rebuild a common life by repairing relationships and renewing institutions that command our attachment and affection”.

That common life is essential for our mutual flourishing — for stable, cooperative and contented communities. Up here that means having enough people for Wensleydale Rugby Club to field teams week in, week out; the Riding for the Disabled Association having enough volunteers; the pubs having enough locals to keep them open when the tourists aren’t here. Since I’ve become a councillor I’ve seen one community successfully buy their pub and another get far down the road. These are Burke’s “Little Platoons” in the field, and if half of the rank and file weren’t only available on bank holidays, they’d have even more success.

Without an active government — one that’s prepared to intervene to ensure a level playing field, rather than leave the people we’re elected to represent at the mercy of a market that doesn’t work — this flourishing is a challenge. Our cities, towns and villages are not just there to be plundered by private hands. They are our communities, and we have to price people into, not out of them. 

The importance of fixing the housing problem is clear, but it can’t just be done by building more homes. Without addressing the demand from second home owners, that would be carrying wood into a burning house. As I said at the top, being a councillor is often about dealing with the fallout of structural problems like the failure to build enough homes. It’s beyond the remit of this backbench councillor to fix the underlying issues around housing, but Wednesday’s vote gave me a chance to put the right of our communities not to be deracinated, ahead of someone’s right to a second home.

It’ll probably do me no favours. But then what are councillors for, if not to do good and be damned?

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