THREAT TO THE BROONS’ BUT N’ BEN

How tempting it must be, says our Editor BILL JAMIESON, for Scotland’s Finance Minister John Swinney to hit second home owners and buy-to-let investors in his budget just a fortnight away.

All he has to do is to copy UK chancellor George Osborne and slap on a higher rate of Land & Buildings Transactions Tax (L&BTT), Scotland’s first new devolved tax which came into effect back in April.

It hits the buy-to-let mini-moguls of the Central Belt and the Posh-in-Perth second home set. And who would rush to defend them in today’s “austerity” climate?

Last week the UK chancellor announced a three percentage points increase in Stamp Duty for buyers of buy-to-let and second homes down south, effective from next April.

It means the tax bill on a buy-to-ley property or second home down south costing £250,000 will jump by £7,500. For those buying a second home costing £350,000 the Stamp Duty charge will rise by £10,500.

The Treasury estimates the move will net the exchequer £625 million next year and £880 million by 2020.

How Mr Swinney must be salivating at the prospect. And what a prospective glittering addition to Scotland’s bristling armoury of new tax gathering munitions this would make!

And remember – Swinney has done it before. He quickly adjusted the initial L&BTT rates after Osborne changed Stamp Duty Land Tax rates earlier this year.

But is this the exclusive, well-heeled, class enemy set of political mythology?

While there are more than 1.5 million households across England and Wales with more than one property, the bulk is accounted for by estrangement or divorce arrangements, ‘separate entrance’ accommodation for relations, premises required for work and accommodation for family members at university.

It was this second property ‘diversity of purpose’ on which Liberal Democrat proposals for a doubling of Council Tax on second homes came to grief.

The ‘genuine’ holiday home stock is small. The 2001 Census showed that there were 29,299 second and holiday homes in Scotland, comprising just 1.3 per cent of the housing stock.

And according to National Records of Scotland this year, this number has declined in recent years to around 28,500, due to councils re-classifying which properties were classed as being long-term empty or second homes as a result of Council Tax changes.

However, even this small number of 28,500 belies the socially diverse background of occupiers (by ownership or rent) than the typical depiction of the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ set.

For generations Scotland’s iconic family, The Broons spent their summer holidays in their wee highland but ‘n ben. While the young adults moaned there was nothing to do, Ma and Pa Broon loved it. So, too, did the Bairns. And so, too, did generations of loyal readers.

John Swinney should be careful to research the unintended consequences of simply copying Mr Osborne.

Will Banham of Perthshire-based Bell Ingram, one of Scotland’s leading land and rural estate agents, cautions that it could wreak havoc on the traditionally robust sector that “is a crucial part of the property market across much of rural Scotland.

“This is particularly true throughout the rural west coast and the islands where the holiday home market represents a good proportion of total transactions and is an important part of the rural economy.” With the market static at present, “any increased tax burden on second home buyers would almost certainly force property values down and could have a chilling effect across the entire rural property market.”

And remember, too, that L&BTT has not got off to the best of starts as market activity declined in response. Evidence presented to Holyrood’s Finance Committee last week showed that it faces an 18 per cent shortfall in revenue on residential properties compared to what it was projected to make by John Swinney. In cash terms that means a shortfall of some £40 million.

Separately, David Eiser, writing for the Centre on Constitutional Change, points out that in last week’s Autumn Statement the OBR has reduced its forecast of revenue from L&BTT for 2015/16 – from £540 million to £397 million.

Now these are guesstimates at this stage covering a seasonal market with local variations. But it suggests a significant shortfall from original expectations, one that may not see an imminent recovery as home owners switch to home improvement and refurbishment rather than trading up to another property.

It further underlines the need for research on behavioural effects rather than a knee-jerk rush to grab more tax. And to check out the adverse effects that may follow for Scotland’s rural economy and leisure hot spots.

Beware of killing off the ‘but n’ ben’.

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