No taxation without representation

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 22 September 2011 in Diary
Cornwall's electoral review panel has decided to deny voting rights to second home owners. If these people pay tax in the county, though, why can't they vote?

Cornwall has become the first county to deny voting rights to second home owners.

Following a measure passed by Cornwall’s electoral review panel, officials are checking the electoral register alongside records of homeowners claiming second home Council Tax discounts (worth 10%).  This could affect one in twenty households in Cornwall, or 13,000 homes.

It follows several years of pressure from Liberal Democrat councillors and the Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall, Dan Rogerson, who claims that second homeowners unjustly swing elections.

There is no empirical basis for Rogerson’s claims, although any signifcant shake-up in the Cornish electoral landscape ought to cause some sleepless nights for some of his coalition colleagues. The Conservative MPs George Eustice (Camborne & Redruth) and Sarah Newton (Truro & Falmouth) hold their parliamentary seats by wafer-thin vote margins of 66 and 435 respectively.

The pressure that second home ownership puts on house prices in rural areas is a genuine concern.  It makes it difficult for young locals to get on the housing ladder and for people on lower incomes to buy any property at all. There should be no doubt that Cornwall’s authorities are taking this step with the best intentions, as opposed to the barefaced political tactics propounded by Mr Rogerson and local Lib Dems.

We can safely rule out the state legislating to prohibit second home ownership. This is 21st century Britain, not 1920s Soviet Russia. But is it correct and proper to remove voting rights from taxpaying Cornish residents?

The axiom no taxation without representation is fundamental to the ancient English constitution. In 1215, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta by his barons, partly in opposition to punitive taxation. The conflict over ‘ship money’ in the 1630s was one of the causes of the English Civil War.  Colonial subjects, most notably during the American War of Independence, have often used the claim of no taxation without representation to demand greater autonomy.

The deputy leader of the Lib Dem group on the council, Lib-Dem Alex Folkes, said: “Elections in Cornwall should be decided by people who have a stake in our society – by people who live here and not people who visit for a few weeks.”

This assertion overlooks Cornwall’s reliance on tourism.  According to the Cornwall Tourism Board, tourism makes up one-quarter of the county’s GDP. This is in one of only four UK regions that qualify for poverty grants from the EU’s Social Fund.  Long has been the demise of Cornwall’s tin and copper mining (not to mention half of the global production of arsenic in the 19th century), so along with agriculture, the county’s natural beauty and miles of coastline are its unique selling points. The environment that pulls in five million tourists every year is also what attracts second home owners. They aren’t just coming for pasties, clotted cream and a big greenhouse.

Many second home owners rent out their properties, so further boosting the local economy.  Buying and selling of properties provides employment for local lawyers, accountants, estate agents and others in the housing sector. Refurbishments provide custom for furniture sellers, plumbers, builders, joiners, and so forth.  It ought to make us despondent that rural communities struggle to maintain primary schools and pubs but this shouldn’t blind us from the ulterior benefits that second home owners bring.

What matters philosophically and constitutionally is that second home owners in Cornwall pay taxes. Even with a Council Tax discount of 10%, they may pay a disproportionate figure, if you consider that they spend less than 90 per cent of the year in Cornwall.

Citizens are, of course, outlawed from voting in a general election from more than one address (although voters can do so in local elections, such as students). Cornish officials can plausibly claim that they are merely cleaning up the electoral system. However, if these second home owners do not have enough of a stake in society to merit a vote, why ought they contribute through their taxes?

A more level-headed solution would be to remove the Council Tax discount on second homes – and not just in Cornwall. It would not be unreasonable to increase the Council Tax on second homes to take into account their social externalities.

But taxation without representation is immutable. This nation’s forefathers strove over hundreds of years for property rights and extending the franchise.  We should be alertly circumspect about encroaching on such anciently held rights and liberties.

Correction: The council concerned is a unitary, not a county, authority. Alex Folkes is the deputy leader of the Lib Dem group on the council, not of the council itself as previously stated. Students are able to vote in more than one local authority election.

Tags: Cornwall Council, George Eustice, Sarah Newton, Second home electors

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