Westminster diary: Second homes plan & local election aftermath

Our political correspondent Tom Sheldrick has been covering events in Westminster.

The State Opening of Parliament is full of tradition, but there was a very symbolic change on Tuesday.

The Queen's mobility issues meant she wasn't present for the first time in 59 years, with Prince Charles standing in for her.

Thirty-eight bills were presented, but the plan that is perhaps the most immediately relevant to our region came not in the Queen's Speech itself, nor in the supporting documents, but instead in a press release from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

They said they want to give councils in England the ability to double council tax on unused second homes, and increase rates on empty homes after one year rather than two.

The release said: "as well as supporting and improving services, this extra funding could be used to help ensure council tax is kept low for local residents."

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale, has regularly expressed concerns around excessive second home ownership hollowing out communities, and previously called for council tax to rise on second homes.

But speaking in the Commons debate on the Queen's Speech on Tuesday evening, he described the government's plan as "rubbish."

"The proposal takes no account of the fact that, for instance, 90% of second homes bought in my constituency are bought for investment and then let out for 70 days a year. What does that mean? It means that this is not a second home; the owner is a small business, and this is a holiday let. It means that the small business will pay no council tax and no business rates either."

Cumbrian Conservative MP Neil Hudson has put himself forward to be chair of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Dr Hudson is a vet, who became the MP for the largely rural constituency of Penrith & The Border in 2019, and is already part of the committee.

It looks like being a closely-fought contest for what is quite a senior position, scrutinising government policy.

It was vacated by former Conservative MP Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton), who resigned after admitting watching pornography in parliament.

After last week's local elections in Cumbria, the victorious parties have chosen their proposed leaders of the two new unitary councils, and both are pretty well-known local figures.

For the Liberal Democrats in Westmorland & Furness, it's Jonathan Brook, currently leader of South Lakeland District Council.

For Labour in Cumberland, it's Mark Fryer, former leader of Allerdale Borough Council.They are both likely to be confirmed as leaders when the two shadow authorities hold their first meetings this week, both on Tuesday 17 May.

The reorganisation of Cumbria's councils has been contentious, and the next dispute is likely to come over the government's plans for a directly-elected mayor for the whole county, with the Liberal Democrats quite firmly opposed to the idea.

Finally, I wrote last week about the notably emphatic local election results in Cumbria, with the Conservatives roundly defeated.

This was one particularly thoughtful response about why that happened - ranging from a lack of progress on 'levelling up' to farmers' anger over trade deals and post-Brexit support payment changes.