Cries from Labour politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn, for unoccupied residential properties in Royal Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to be requisitioned for the use of survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have touched a chord and triggered wider media interest in London’s empty homes. It is an issue that recurs in the capital’s political rhetoric, with demands that something be done about it guaranteed an approving response. But the problem is far from the worst one London faces in trying to address its housing shortages, and solving it would not make a huge difference.
The basic numbers tell part of that story on their own. Government figures (see table 615) show that in October 2016 there were a little under 20,000 homes in London that had been empty long term, meaning for more than six months. That is a tiny amount in a metropolis of nearly 3.5 million dwellings (table 100) and the number has been falling steadily since 2004 when the dataset was first compiled. Back then it was 42,600.
What about the number of homeless households in London, temporarily housed? That presently stands at around 54,000 – two-and-a-half times the number of long term empty homes. So even if it were possible and practical to seize those empty homes and give them to homeless individuals and families, there wouldn’t be nearly enough to go round. And soon there would be more homeless people in need of help.
Two things stand out about empty homes in RBKC in particular. One is that it had the highest number of all of London’s 32 boroughs – 1,399 – at the time the figures were compiled. The other is that the number has remained broadly the same since 2004, even though the number for London overall has gone down markedly. What lies behind that persistently high figure? According to one columnist who has pounced upon the stat, all 1,399 homes are “investment nest eggs” with “large, airy rooms”. But the government data doesn’t say why the homes are empty, who owns them or how large or airy their rooms are – or, for that matter, how many rooms each property contains.
There is a widespread belief, perpetuated by journalists and politicians, that Central London is packed with posh new flats wilfully left empty by wealthy owners who live abroad and idly watch their value rise until it suits them to cash in. But a report for London Mayor Sadiq Khan by London School of Economics housing experts, published last week, found that less than 1% of new properties bought by overseas investors are left wholly empty and that the vast majority are rented out to Londoners. It also showed that without those popular folk villains, “rich foreign investors”, there would less new affordable housing built in expensive parts of London, not more as has been claimed.
And there can be several reasons why properties go unoccupied for six months or more. Some might have been bought in advance for students coming to study in London and will be inhabited in time. Older ones might be undergoing lengthy refurbishments or conversions. Completed new flats that are parts of towers or blocks often cannot be occupied until the whole tower or block has been finished, a process that can take many months or even years.
Some or all of these reasons might well apply in RBKC. It could also be that many of its “empties” are simply second homes that have existed in that borough’s timelessly wealthy enclaves for generations. The picture of empty homes in RBKC may not be pleasing, but it is probably more complicated than it looks at first sight.
There is a good case for stronger compulsory purchase powers being used more often against genuinely empty homes, but that would come at a price. Owners must be compensated for the value of their appropriated homes, and housing in London does not come cheap (especially in RBKC).
Camden Council has made use of powers – bestowed by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, by the way – to increase council tax by 50% on so-called “ghost homes”. It is a good policy, and one that Boris Johnson of all people has been known to favour strengthening. It gives owners an incentive to sell or let their empty properties and, if that doesn’t happen, provides councils with a little extra income. But it is not transformative.
In the particular, traumatic circumstances of Grenfell, the urge to point to empty properties locally and ask why they can’t be used for those in sudden, desperate need may be understandable. There are mechanisms for this type of solution but doing it is much harder than saying it. And filling empty homes in general, although desirable, would barely scratch the surface of London’s housing crisis.
Photograph by Max Curwen-Bingley.