A SELKIRKSHIRE councillor hopes a new Scottish Government bill can bring families into the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys to live.
Vicky Davidson believes extra cash generated from proposed increases to council tax rates on long-term empty homes – estimated at £700,000 per year in the Borders – could be used to provide more affordable houses in rural locations.
This week, she told The Wee Paper: “If this bill goes ahead and second homes and empty properties see increases in council tax rates, then the extra money should be put towards more affordable housing being made available in very rural areas such as the Ettrick and Yarrow valleys.
“The problem of empty properties is not as bad as it once was in the valleys, but there is still a lack of affordable housing as highlighted in the Revitalising the Ettrick and Yarrow Valleys Project.
“Previously empty properties have either been bought as second homes or the rent is too high for families.”
Ms Davidson this week persuaded Scottish Borders Council’s executive committee to include in its response to the Scottish Government consultation on council tax changes a suggestion that funding be introduced to provide owners of rural empty homes with cash to bring them back to use.
The Rural Empty Properties Grant has been used by other Scottish local authorities, but SBC previously chose not to take up the initiative.
Ms Davidson added: “East Lothian Council are the only authority I am aware of that has an empty homes grant at the moment and I think a similar scheme in the Borders would work.”
The proposed amendments include allowing councils to increase council tax on long-standing empty properties to 100 per cent.
A discount of between 10 and 50 per cent for properties which have been unoccupied for less than a year could also be implemented, while the council would not be able to apply an increase on a building that is being actively marketed, until it has been empty for more than two years.
However, Catriona Bhatia, Peeblesshire councillor and daughter of former Selkirk MP David Steel, said the consultation was surrounded in “ludicrous bureaucracy”.
Mrs Bhatia added: “What is being proposed is so complicated that no council will be better off.
“I just wonder if this has been thought through. What if someone is actively trying to sell their property? There seems a ludicrous amount of bureaucracy for a potentially small financial gain.”
SBC estimate there are 1,000 long-term empty homes, but its revenue and benefits manager Gary Smith said it is not known how many may be liable to an increased charge.
And in a reply to the consultation, Mr Smith raised a number of concerns and requests for clarifications.
Mr Smith said: “There are some issues, such as how easy it is to claim the empty property is a second home which is exempt from the charge.
“The idea of looking at utility bills and speaking to neighbours does not seem reliable to us. We would be relying on home owners to be truthful and get evidence from that. It could be potentially very expensive to police this.”