Or perhaps, more likely, there isn’t a queue of businesses looking to rent these properties in the first place, which is why they’re empty. So who exactly does the government think will be bidding to rent out these vacant properties? And what happens to the value of a property with such a tenant? The logical outcome is that rather than have their properties rented out for peanuts to potentially low-quality tenants; landlords will either install sham tenants to dodge the draft or use permitted development rights to convert their buildings into residential. Now, hats off if the latter is the government’s ultimate plan since it neatly accelerates their ambition to have more homes in our town centres. But I’ll let you judge whether they’re likely to have been that prescient.
The other interesting issue that the High Street rental auction idea impacts is property ownership rights. The other day my wife pointed out a pair of trousers in my wardrobe that I hadn’t worn for a while and asked me if I wanted to chuck them out. Now, they’re my strides, and, marital harmony aside, I reserve the right to do with them as I wish. Ownership, after all, has its privileges. Or, at least, it used to. Imagine if, instead, there’d been a knock at the door from some trouserless chap who’d come to pick them up because he’d bid successfully to rent them from me at a knock-down price at a government auction. All because I’d not worn them for a year. How exactly would I feel about that? I’m being ridiculous, but it’s the same principle. If you own something and elect not to use it, should that be your choice, or should the state be allowed to intervene and take control of it? Once more, addressing the problem is laudable, but the mechanics of the solution leave a boatload of question marks and a potentially worrying issue about state intervention on something rather fundamental like the ownership of assets and property. And meanwhile, the housing crisis rumbles on in the background.
As for second-home owners, the proposal appears to be that they should pay up to double the going council tax rate for home number two, subject to certain criteria. It mirrors a similar principle adopted in Wales, where second homeowners will face a council tax bill up to four times higher than owner-occupiers from April 2023. The underlying issue is critical; there are simply not enough homes for local people to live in. But ask any five-year-old what the logical solution to not having enough houses is, and I suspect they probably wouldn’t suggest a 300 percent increase in council tax for second homeowners. But of course, the far more obvious answer would involve politicians grasping the nettle and doing something that could potentially put their jobs at risk, namely building more homes. Far less risky politically to point the finger at those pesky wealthy second-home owners instead.
None of this would have happened at Hogwarts, where presumably a bit of wand-waving would have magicked up a handful of hitherto non-existent counties that could be slotted in somewhere without anyone noticing, and we could build as many houses as we liked. But is there a real-world solution that gets homes built without alienating voters?
No, is the short answer. To be fair, the government has tried quite a few other things recently to alienate voters, so perhaps there’s an argument for just taking the plunge. Maybe the wails of nimby Britain will be drowned out by the cacophony of discontent from other quarters. Yet interestingly the government already has a pretty good plan for fixing the High Street and partially solving the housing crisis, too, namely converting existing unused brownfield stock into residential. The CPRE estimates that there are enough empty brownfield properties to create 1.3 million new homes. The government has taken great strides towards making it easier to convert these into residential use by creating a raft of new permitted development rights, which have changed the game significantly. Converting existing buildings is, to some extent, the perfect solution. It would unlock around four years’ worth of new homes, and votes are far less likely to be lost since these buildings already exist, and most people would rather see inhabited homes than empty commercial buildings. Most of them can be found where there is already infrastructure and demand, plus it will encourage a renaissance in our town centres since more people will start living there, creating a need for local shops and amenities. It also doesn’t involve building on our precious green belt.