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Second homes debate debacle

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County Council HQ: F ew councillors attend key debate

County Council HQ: Few councillors attend key debate

CHAOS is, perhaps, too strong a word to use about the debate on levying a Council Tax premium on Ceredigion’s second homes and a premium on long-term empty homes. There was, however, plenty of confusion and not a little farce as the debate took place in a more than half empty Chamber. Under new powers granted by the Welsh Government, authorities are able to levy a Premium without the negative financial implications inherent in the current powers. Specifically, the majority of the additional income arising from premiums being charged will be retained by the local authority with no negative effect on RSG.

First of all came the question of what the Cabinet had recommended. There had been questions raised about whether the vote on the recommendation made by Cabinet had been properly reached, with several Cabinet members having potential conflicts of interest. Deputy Leader Ray Quant MBE attempted manfully to explain the position. There was an issue with who could and couldn’t vote at Cabinet, Cllr Quant confirmed. However, members were zipping in and out of the meeting to establish whether or not they could vote, or speak, or do neither. There was a risk that the Cabinet would not have sufficient members present to reach a valid decision.

Rest assured, Cllr Quant told the few present, the Cabinet’s recommendation was made because one had to be made, not because of any enthusiasm for it one way or the other: it was all done in a rush. What Councillor Quant could not explain was why members had left it so ridiculously late to obtain clarity one way or the other. The legislation permitting councils to raise premiums on second homes and empty properties is not a new one; the Council was bound to vote on it before the end of the financial year; but on the underlying issue of why applications to the relevant committee had been left so late.

Cllr Quant was noticeably silent; neither did Cllr Quant explain why Cabinet did not adjourn for an hour and come back to the issue of the second and empty homes premium after the scrutiny meeting had made matters clear for those Cabinet members seeking a dispensation. Whatever the position, at the outset of the debate, there were sixteen voting members left in the Chamber, along with a number of those who could speak but not vote. Some of those who had been cleared to speak and vote left the Chamber before the debate even began. Perhaps after talking about the issue of BTB for the better part of an hour and half, their vocal cords had worn out together with their patience.

It took an intervention from the Monitoring Officer to establish that the few remaining members left in the Chamber represented sufficient numbers to permit a legal vote to be taken. The debate can best be described as peevish, with Chair Cllr Gill Hopley doing her level best to ensure both that councillors spoke in turn without interruption and that squabbling between councillors was kept to the minimum. At one point she suggested that sniping had reached a point that two councillors should leave the Chamber and carry on their argument elsewhere.

Not quite the same as offering them ‘outside’, but about as edifying. Rather more pertinent were Cllr Hopley’s observations about the precipitous decline in the permanent population of New Quay from around 1,000 to 700 in very few years. The Council Chair painted a worrying picture of the town as virtually empty in the winter months and suggesting it was in danger of becoming like a town in a western with tumble weed blowing along its streets. Several of those taking part in the debate were fearful of those who owned holiday homes setting themselves up as a business to avoid paying the Council anything and taking the benefit of business rates paid direct (at the moment) to Cardiff Bay; others were concerned about other methods of avoidance and skulduggery by those pesky holiday home owners with their undoubted contribution to the local authority.

In fact, it appeared that a significant number of those present favoured doing little or nothing to let go of nurse and finding something worse. Cllr Gethin James injected a muchneeded note of realism into the debate when he suggested that his fellow councillors should look at the number of empty homes in towns and villages across Ceredigion and the desperate need for that accommodation to be available to young, local families. The issue, Cllr James suggested was not only an economic one in terms of the effect on impoverished and impecunious holiday and second home owners, nor was it an issue affecting solely concerned with the Council’s revenue.

The issue, he implied, need to be seen in a broader social context. Cllr Elizabeth Evans proposed a reasoned amendment to the Cabinet recommendation for a 50% premium on second homes with a zero premium on long-term empty homes, suggesting that 25% on both would be the right level to start off, with the option of reviewing the effects of that after one year. She further suggested that the money raised from the charge on second homes only be returned to town and community councils to enable them to improve facilities locally, both for locals and for visitors.

That point was countered with an observation regarding empty houses owned by farmers and a request for clarification of what the words ‘longterm’ actually meant in the context of the policy. Fortunately, the answer to that question was found in the background papers delivered to members ahead of the meeting: the Welsh Government guidance defines a long-term empty property as ‘a dwelling which is both unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for a continuous period of at least one year’. After much heat but little light, the debate moved to its close. Councillor Elizabeth Evans’s suggestion that the premium levied on both second and empty homes at 25% was approved without much demur.

Cllr Evans’s motion that the revenue raised from second homes be apportioned to the localities in which it was raised – something of potential significant benefit to tourism areas such as, for example, Aberaeron – was altogether closer. Eight backed the motion, after a recount seven opposed it, with a solitary abstention. And, despite the pleas of the Chair to deal with item nine on the agenda while council was still quorate, members exited the Chamber.

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Royals set to visit Ceredigion during summer visit

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AS PART of their annual summer visit to Wales, The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall will be visiting Ceredigion next month.

From July 2-6, Charles and Camilla will tour the country, undertaking over 20 engagements across the country.

On July 3, The Prince of Wales will visit Dà Mhìle Distillery, Llandysul, the first organic distillery in the UK approved by the Soil Association, where he was previously gifted the thousandth bottle to be produced by Dà Mhìle.

The Prince of Wales will also visit St. Gwenog’s Church, Llanwenog, and view their unique carvings created by Joseph Reubens, a Belgian World War One refugee. His Royal Highness will also meet members of their local community.

The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall’s fourteenth annual Summer visit to Wales will feature celebrations to mark the 70th Anniversary of The National Health Service and the marking the 150th anniversary of the Heart of Wales railway line amongst other events.

A Clarence House spokesperson said: “The Prince and The Duchess are really looking forward to their annual summer visit to Wales where they will be celebrating key anniversaries for the National Health Service, the Heart of Wales railway line and the 90th anniversary of Gwent Association of Voluntary Organisation. Their Royal Highnesses relish the opportunity to meet members of the community who are making a difference to Welsh life.”

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Social media used to groom children young as six

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CHILDREN as young as six in Wales have been targeted across an array of online platforms in the first year following the introduction of anti-grooming laws.

A law of Sexual Communication with a Child came into effect in England and Wales on April 3, 2017, after an NSPCC campaign, and in the first year a total of 3,171 crimes were recorded by police forces – amounting to nine grooming offences per day.

A total of 274 offences were recorded across the four Welsh police forces in the same period.

More than half of the offences in Wales were logged by South Wales Police (158) with 53 in North Wales and 44 in the Gwent force area.

Dyfed-Powys Police supplied data for the period between October 2017 and April 2018 when 19 offences were recorded.

In Wales, grooming offences were recorded on 23 different platforms, with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat comprising the top three most-commonly used with more than 120 taking place using those platforms alone.

Ninety-one crimes were reported in Wales against boys and girls aged between 12 and 15, while 56 offences were recorded against children aged 11 and under. The youngest victim recorded was just six years old.

Following the NSPCC’s #WildWestWeb campaign, the UK Government’s digital secretary Matt Hancock announced that laws will be brought in to regulate social networks, to keep children safe and prevent harms such as grooming.

The charity is now campaigning to ensure those laws are sufficiently robust to prevent grooming and to truly keep children safe.

It is calling on Government Create mandatory safety rules that social networks are legally required to follow; Establish an independent regulator to enforce safety laws and fine non-compliant sites; Require social media sites to publish annual safety reports; Force platforms to develop technology to detect grooming using algorithms.

It comes ahead of the charity’s annual flagship conference How Safe Are Our Children? which begins on Wednesday June 20 in London and has the theme Growing Up Online.

Contact offences such as rape and sexual assault were among those recorded in connection with grooming offences.

Mared Parry, from North Wales, was sent sexual messages from men 10 years older than her on Facebook when she was aged just 14.

Mared, who has waived her right to anonymity, was groomed to send semi-naked pictures to them.

She said: “At the beginning it was messages like ‘Hey, how are you?’ But as the weeks went on, they started sending messages that were more and more sexual. It was so subtle; that’s why it is so easy for an online chat to slip into being so wrong.

“If I didn’t reply or speak the way they wanted me to, then they would say: ‘You’re just too immature for me’. They were so manipulative, but you don’t even notice it.

“Looking back at it now, it’s scary to think that I sent semi-naked pictures to older guys. It could have gone a lot further.”

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “These numbers are far higher than we had predicted, and every single sexual message from an adult to a child can have a huge impact for years to come.

“Social networks have been self-regulated for a decade and it’s absolutely clear that children have been harmed as a result.

“I urge digital secretary Matt Hancock to follow through on his promise and introduce safety rules backed up in law and enforced by an independent regulator with fining powers.

“Social networks must be forced to design extra protections for children into their platforms, including algorithms to detect grooming to prevent abuse from escalating.”

In Wales, NSPCC Cymru has called for the Welsh Government to co-ordinate and progress efforts to keep children as safe in their online worlds as they are offline.

Last year, Welsh Government announced plans to produce a children and young persons’ online safety action plan.

The NSPCC hopes it will deliver practical help and support for schools, parents and others in Wales involved in child protection online when it is published.

How Safe Are Our Children? takes place at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, in Westminster, London on June 20-21.

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Grant money available to improve play areas in Ceredigion

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CEREDIGION COUNTY COUNCIL has been awarded £100,800 from the Welsh Government’s Rural Communities Development Fund to finance capital works in four play areas across Ceredigion.

On June 19, the Council’s Cabinet authorised the project’s commencement.

The four play areas are Ponterwyd Play Area, Llanon Tennis Courts, Llanddewi Brefi Play Area and Cardigan Skate Park. The money will improve playing and leisure opportunities in these areas.

The full cost of the work is estimated to be £126,000, with the grant contributing 80% of the cost and the town and community councils will provide the remaining 20%.

The Cabinet member responsible for Learning Services and Lifelong Learning, Councillor Catrin Miles, said, “Quality and safe playing opportunities are important to the county’s children as well as for their parents. I’m delighted that the Cabinet could authorise such a project and I’m sure the play areas will be well used after being improved.”

The project may start from July 18, 2018 and must end by April 30, 2019.

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