London’s Empty Housing: Causes, Existing Policy, Future Solutions and their Enforcement

Duke Lodge in Holland Park, whose 26 rental apartments have stood empty since 2013, when it was bought by the Guernsey-based CPC Group, an offshore company owned by billionaire property developer Christian Candy. In 2016 Kensington and Chelsea council granted planning permission for the demolition of the block and its replacement with 5 interconnected villas of 24 luxury apartments with no affordable housing in a borough where 1 in 29 of the population is homeless.

1. Empty Housing

In January of this year the Liberal Democrat Party published data gathered from Freedom of Information requests to 276 councils revealing not only the number of empty dwellings in the UK and how long they have been left empty, but the lack of action by local authorities to bring them back into use during a housing crisis that is causing increased housing poverty and homelessess. Over the past five years only 19 of the 247 councils in England and Wales that responded to the FOI requests have made use of the Empty Dwelling Management Orders that would allow them to take over properties that have been empty for at least 6 months, and only 6 of those councils have done so in the past year. Describing this as a ‘national scandal’, Vince Cable, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for stronger powers for councils to bring empty properties back into use as homes – as he put it – ‘for some of the most vulnerable people in our society’. In March I was interviewed for a documentary on this issue by Designing Buildings Wiki, and this prompted me to research the causes of this national scandal and the failure of existing government policy to cover it up. In response, I have come up with some proposals for solving the problem of empty housing – which is neither a cause nor a symptom of our housing crisis but a product of it – and how those solutions can be enforced in practice through changes to legislation and policy.

The increasingly common sight of empty housing in the middle of a housing crisis is a global phenomenon, blighting the housing stock not only of London and Paris but also of Melbourne and Vancouver. Its causes, therefore, cannot be attributed to the local conditions of that housing crisis – to an excess of production or lack of supply, of having too little space or too few builders investing in either a boom or stagnant housing market. Rather, the phenomenon of large numbers of empty homes is a systemic problem produced by the current moment in world capitalism. Years of laissez-faire government policies and the resulting increase in the monopoly capitalism holds over housing means the production of residential properties in the world’s wealthiest cities is now driven not by their use-value as homes for the citizens of a country, but by their exchange-value as investment opportunities for global capital in search of high-growth commodities in secure markets underwritten by the state. Any government that seeks to bring housing back into use as homes for its electorate, therefore, must do so through housing policy that first loosens and finally breaks global capital’s hold over our nation’s homes, and in its place have the political will to take responsibility for housing the citizens of the nation into its own hands.

Unfortunately, in the UK today neither of the two political parties with expectations of forming a government now or in the near future has either this policy or this will. Indeed, the housing policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties – and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats too – contain only more of the same abrogation of this responsibility to the market that has created the situation where, in England in 2017, 1.16 million households are on housing waiting lists and over 268,000 people are homeless in a country in which hundreds of thousands of homes stand empty at any one time. Data published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (Table 615: vacant dwellings by local authority district: England, from 2004) shows that, of the 23.3 million dwellings in England subject to council tax charges, 590,000, 2.5 per cent of the total, were empty in October 2016, with more than 200,000, 0.86 per cent, empty for more than 6 months, 60,000 empty for more than 2 years, 23,000 for more than 5 years, and over 11,000 for at least 10 years. Extraordinarily, nearly 48,000 of these homes, 8 per cent of all vacant dwellings, are in the social rented sector.

According to analysis by the charity Empty Homes, over 84,000 of the dwellings empty for more than 6 months, 42 per cent of the total, are in council tax band A, the lowest value properties (up to £40,000 based on 1 April 1991 values), with nearly 68,000, 34 per cent, in bands B and C (£40,001 to £52,000 and £52,001 to £68,000). However, the more than 2,000 empty dwellings in band H, the highest value properties (more than £320,000 in 1991), although only 1 per cent of the 200,000 dwellings empty for more than 6 months, represents 1.51 per cent of all dwellings in this council-tax band, the highest percentage of any band, and nearly double the total average of 0.86 per cent. Perhaps surprisingly, the lowest value empty homes represent 1.49 per cent of all properties in band A, the second highest percentage. In comparison, the empty homes in bands B to G constitute between 0.54 and 0.81 per cent of their respective bands. Empty homes, in other words, are proportionately in the highest and lowest value properties in England. Although London, with 19,800 long-term empty homes, has the lowest percentage (0.56 percent) of all the regions, and around half the 39,000 long-term empty homes in the North West (1.2 per cent of all homes in the region), this accords with the reasons why properties are being bought in the capital and by whom, and how this results in them being left empty, with 58,000 London properties (29 per cent of the total) standing empty in a city where 165,000 people are currently homeless.

The Carpenters estate in Stratford, where 395 of the 710 council homes have been emptied since 2004 by Newham council, who have tried to sell the land to various property developers, including University College London. In 2014 one of the blocks was occupied for two weeks by the Focus E15 Mothers, who were being threatened with enforced relocation from Newham following the closure of their homeless hostel. Over 13,600 people, or 1 in every 25 constituents, is sleeping rough or living in some form of temporary accommodation in the borough of Newham.

2. Causes

In the decade since the financial crisis, the average house price in London doubled from £245,000 in April 2009 to a peak of £488,000 in July 2017, since when they have dropped to £472,000 in March 2018. If, as I am arguing, the properties standing empty in the capital are a product of this boom in London’s property market, rather than a failure of that market to find consumers, the solution to this problem should begin with an analysis of the primary reasons people are buying property in London. At the high end of the market, properties are purchased for:

  1. Buy to Leave, as a commodity for capital investment and property speculation on London’s housing market by non-domicile owners, with 30 per cent of properties sold in London last year being bought by overseas investors, and 50 per cent of those at the high end of the market. Half of the residential units in London’s new developments currently stand empty, as do 19 per cent of all dwellings in Inner London; while of the properties purchased by overseas investors, 42 per cent are empty.
  2. Second-home ownership for the wealthy, as a home occupied sometimes for only a few weeks a year, as a pied-a-terre for people commuting to work in London, as living quarters for children studying in the capital, and, of course, as a second home for Members of Parliament looking to claim their mortgage payments back from the state as part of their expenses. 39 per cent of London properties worth between £1 million and £5 million are currently under-used, a figure that rises to 64 per cent of properties worth more than £5 million.

In the middle range of the market, properties are purchased for:

  1. Buy to Rent, either by company landlords with a property portfolio, which in 2017 accounted for 27 per cent of all property lettings in London, often compiled from former council flats bought under Right to Buy and now being rented out on the private market; or by second home-owners renting the property out themselves or through an estate agent, with London buyers responsible for 39 per cent of all stamp duty payments last year; increasingly to London’s large population of international students, which now constitutes a market in itself, with 81,000 purpose-built bed spaces in London, 57 per cent of which are provided by the private sector; but also on Air BnB, with around 2 million guests staying at 64,000 London listings in the year up to July 2017. This, again, is a phenomenon shared by popular city destinations across the world, most famously in Barcelona, Berlin, Sydney and San Francisco.
  2. Home ownership as an addition to or in lieu of their pension, with many middle-class buyers making more from the appreciation on their property value as house prices increase than from their salary.

As a result of this boom in sales in the high and middle range of London’s property market, at the low end of the market dwellings are left empty:

  1. In anticipation of future rise in land values, by developers with planning permission for building high-value properties for capital investment, second-home ownership, buy-to-rent or home ownership in their place.
  2. Preparatory to the redevelopment of a site, which has been evicted of tenants by councils for refurbishment or redevelopment and sale or rent on the private market. As a result, in April 2017 there were 6,383 council homes standing empty in London boroughs, 3,494 for more than 6 months.
  3. Preparatory to the regeneration of an estate, and following the decanting of its residents, with ‘decanting’ meaning the re-housing of residents elsewhere, and ‘regeneration’ meaning demolition and redevelopment. In London, thousands of council estate homes have stood empty for years on end – with the Carpenters estate in Newham and the Aylesbury estate in Southwark being the most famous; while others, such as the Loughborough Park estate in Lambeth and Marian Court in Hackney, either installed with property guardians to relieve councils of the obligation to re-house constituents on the council’s housing waiting lists, or with tenants on shorthold (rather than secure) tenancies, which means the council doesn’t have a duty to re-house them on the new development, increasing the number of high-value properties that can be built by the developers when the land is cleared.

It isn’t clear whether such decanted council homes are included in the figures returned by London’s local authorities, as these presumably wouldn’t be subject to council tax; but the sheer numbers standing empty make it unlikely. The Aylesbury estate contained over 2,700 dwellings, large swathes of which have been standing empty since 2005, when Southwark council put it up for regeneration; while on the Carpenters estate 395 dwellings have been emptied since 2004, when they were decanted of residents prior to the London Olympics as Newham council tried to sell the land to prospective developers. According to our own research into London’s estate regeneration programme, there are between 100 and 150 London estates that are currently going through the same process, making the figure of 6,383 vacant dwellings returned by the councils implementing this programme far short of the actual number of council-owned dwellings standing empty. Based on the practice of Southwark council, local authorities don’t even list the number of homes for social rent lost to these regeneration schemes until the new development has been completed in its entirety; so council homes decanted of residents and awaiting demolition, as part of a regeneration scheme that will realise the potential value uplift of the land they stand on, can be left empty for years and even decades and never officially be listed as ‘empty’. But all these dwellings, it is safe to say, are in the lowest council tax band.

It is this direct correlation between the demolition of low-value council homes and their replacement with high-value properties for investment rather than owner-occupation that accounts for the otherwise inexplicable fact that properties in the highest and lowest council-tax bands are nearly twice as likely to stand empty for more than 6 months. Such properties are, respectively, the starting point and the end result of the estate regeneration programme that is driving the housing crisis in London, and which the councils of all three major political parties are implementing on their council housing stock. The phenomenon of tens of thousands of homes standing empty in the middle of a housing crisis, in other words, is a product of the success of the housing market in generating unprecedented profits for the architects, implementers and beneficiaries of this crisis, and not the residue of its failure, as politicians supposedly committed to ending this crisis consistently tell us when announcing the latest, largely ineffectual policy launched to do just that.

St. George Wharf Tower in Vauxhall, whose apartments sold from £580,000 for a 1-bedroom flat to £51 million for the 5-storey penthouse, with no affordable housing provision required by Lambeth council in a borough where almost 29,000 people are on the housing waiting list. 131 of the 214 apartments are owned by foreign investors, with a quarter held through offshore companies based in tax havens, and nobody registered to vote in 184 of the properties.

3. Existing Policy

Existing policy written to address the issue of empty housing has been listed in the House of Commons briefing paper Empty Housing (England), which was published in June 2017. What this paper doesn’t include is how the private companies and social housing providers given the responsibility for bringing these empty homes back into use have responded to this policy, the primary examples of which I will briefly cover here.

Under Chapter 2, Part 4 of the Housing Act 2004, Empty Dwelling Management Orders allow local authorities to bring an unoccupied private sector property back into use as housing. However, the Residential Property Tribunals that adjudicate over a council’s application for an Empty Dwelling Management Order must be satisfied: 1) that the property has been empty for at least two years; 2) that it is heavily vandalised or actively used for antisocial purposes; and 3) that it is causing a nuisance for the community. So even if this power was used widely by councils – which the research by the Liberal Democrats show it isn’t – it wouldn’t make any difference to the thousands of empty homes in London that have been purchased as a form of capital investment.

Under Section 11B of the Local Government Finance Act 2012, local authorities are able to set an ‘empty homes premium’ for long-term empty properties, according to which properties that have been unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for over two years may be charged up to 150 per cent of the normal council tax. In March 2018 this premium was increased to 200 per cent. However, neither increases is likely to deter property speculators or offshore companies investing in London’s property market. To take the most notorious example, as of July 2017 Kensington and Chelsea had 1,857 vacant private dwellings in the borough: 111 of these are classified as unoccupied and substantially unfurnished; 50 as unoccupied with works in progress for less than 12 months; and 696 as empty for more than 2 years. In a report published by the council’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee in July 2015, it was found that of the 941 dwellings then classified as unoccupied – half the current number only two years ago, which is a measure of the rate this phenomenon will increase in London – around 50 had stood empty for between 11 and 15 years. And as shown by Private Eye’s interactive map of properties in England and Wales acquired by overseas companies between 2005 and 2014, most of these are registered to companies based in tax havens like the Virgin Islands. None were made available to the 209 households made homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire, or have been offered to the 82 households that are still living in emergency accommodation a year later.

Part 7 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 included a number of technical reforms to Compulsory Purchase Orders, increasing the powers of councils to force owners to sell empty properties if it is in the public interest to do so. These were further modified in Part 2 of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. However, compulsory purchase orders are used less by councils for the purpose of bringing empty properties back into use as homes and more in order to force leaseholders on council estates – of which in London they constitute on average one-third of residents – to sell their homes for around 25 per cent the market value of their replacements as part of regeneration schemes that demolish and rebuild council estates as properties for market sale and rent, shared ownership properties, Rent to Buy products and affordable rent. Far from filling properties left empty, therefore, compulsory purchase orders contribute to the emptying of council homes for years on end during the regeneration process.

The Criminal Finances Act 2017 allows enforcement agencies to seize UK properties suspected of being used to launder dirty money. However, this doesn’t appear to have put a dent in the more than 100,000 UK land titles registered to anonymous companies in British oversees territories, or in the 44,000 land titles registered to oversees companies, 90 per cent of which were bought through tax havens, and more than 50 per cent of which have no identified owners. Without the political will to enact them, which is entirely lacking in our property-owning class of politicians, such legislation is window dressing in a country through which an estimated £90 billion of dirty money passes each year.

In February 2018 the Labour Shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, announced plans to use compulsory purchase powers to force landowners to sell land at its current worth, based on agricultural prices, rather than its potential worth when it has received planning permission for housing, which increases its value 100 times over. These measures would reduce the incentive for builders and investment funds to land-bank, and potentially free up land on which to build the 100,000 council and housing association homes a year Labour promised in its manifesto on housing. However, if councils retained the increased value consequent upon them granting planning permission for housing on land they owned, then this would act as a further incentive for them to make it available to developers building the highest-value property to generate the highest level of value uplift. Of course, that’s already happening, which is why so much council-owned land in London is being sold to private developers, above all by Labour councils. Simply freeing up land for house building isn’t going to address the problem of what tenure of housing gets built there, and nothing in Labour’s housing policy or the practice of its councils indicates that will be homes for social rent.

In any case, by the time Labour’s Green Paper, Housing for the Many, was published this April, such fighting talk about land-banking had disappeared and been replaced with the watered-down promise that:

‘A Labour government will establish an English Sovereign Land Trust to work with local authorities to enable more proactive buying of land at a price closer to existing use value. As part of this we will consider changes to the rules governing the compensation paid to landowners.’

This sounds very much as if the horror that greeted Healey’s initial proposals in the British press – which reacted as if Lenin had come back from the dead and was threatening to storm the Houses of Parliament – had changed his mind. All Healey proposes now is that a Labour government would ensure that new housing developments on public land – which includes, of course, estate regeneration schemes – include ‘an appropriate amount of affordable housing’. It’s hard to imagine a more craven concession to the press barons, or a more meaningless promise to residents. At least Healey also promised to remove what he called the ‘loophole’ of viability assessments through which developers reduce the amount of affordable housing on new developments, although the way he described this process indicates he sees this as some sort of kink in the entrepreneurial practice of private companies, rather than the mechanism by which they guarantee their profits. However, even if a Labour government somehow managed to ensure that an ‘appropriate’ amount of affordable housing is built – whatever that may mean – such housing will still be for shared ownership, rent-to-buy products and affordable rents indexed to the private market, rather than homes for social rent.

Even more damaging for the implementation of Healey’s already compromised and inadequate plans, the response of the largest building companies to the attempts to impose even affordable housing quotas has been to refuse to increase production or even to threaten to reduce the number of homes they build in London. Indeed, the fewer homes they build the higher the prices they can charge. There is no incentive for them, and even less means for the government to compel them, to build the housing we need, rather than the investment opportunities on which the pre-tax profits of the four largest UK builders, Persimmon Homes, Taylor Wimpey, Berkeley Homes and Barrat Homes who are also the four largest land-bankers have gone from 412.8 million in 2011 to £3.355 billion in 2017, an astonishing eightfold increase in just 6 years. And yet the same builders, who exert a monopoly over UK housebuilding that neither the Conservative government nor the Labour opposition is willing to break, continue to complain that even affordable housing quotas, let alone the social-rent housing that none of their developments contain, would make their money-printing schemes unprofitable. So what’s the answer?

Haggerston West estate in Haggerston, where prior to the demolition of its 343 homes by Hackney council and their redevelopment by London & Quadrant housing association, ‘I Am Here’ (2009-2011), a project by Fugitive Images, put photographs of former residents over the boarded-up windows. Together with the neighbouring Kingsland estate, this regeneration scheme resulted in the loss of 148 homes for social rent in a borough with over 12,100 households on the housing waiting list.

4. Solutions

If we hand over the responsibility for housing our population to property developers, builders, estate agents and other private companies whose only responsibility is to their shareholders and their profits, then it is disingenuous of us to think they’ll have anything more than that. It’s the equivalent of handing over a newborn calf to the care of a vulture and being surprised when you return to find a bloody carcass. However, we can do something to stop the gamekeepers from behaving like jackals, as they have been for some time. To try and do so, ASH has not only designed alternatives to individual estate demolitions, but is also formulating changes to policy that, if implemented, would make refubishment and infill the enforceable default option for any council or housing association implementing an estate regeneration scheme.

In contrast, by devolving this decision onto an easily manipulated ballot of residents, the London Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration has also devolved responsibility for how an estate regeneration proceeds and turns out. Without procedures for enforcing its recommendations beyond withdrawing access to Greater London Authority funds the Guide remains just that – a guide, which developers will ignore and to which councils – as they have already – will pay mere lip-service. What we need, in its place, is enforceable government legislation and clear GLA policy that lays out what an estate regeneration scheme must and must not do. But as the repeated and ongoing failure of current legislation and policy has made clear, the only way to enforce that is to take responsibility for our housing out of the hands of private developers and builders and bring it back under the direction of our elected representatives.

The problem with that, of course, is that what distinction in duties and what difference in accountability there may once have been between the public and private realms no longer exists in the UK, with developers and councillors, builders and planners, politicians and architects in full collaboration in producing and profiting from the housing crisis, often in a fluid occupation of roles, with a revolving door between occupants of public and private positions, and councillors awarding their own companies contracts or being rewarded with lucrative roles in companies that were once their clients.

In response to what is, at best, a conflict of interest, and at worst good old fashioned corruption, there is a growing interest in transferring council housing into tenant managed and even owned housing, in buying land on which to build through community land trusts, and in funding housing co-operatives, where responsibility for their homes is taken on by the residents themselves. Of course, there is the danger that such initiatives promote the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s neo-liberal narrative of the Big Society, which is better described as ‘every man for himself’. And while these solutions are being increasingly explored and promoted, they do not present a solution to the mass demolition of hundreds of council and housing association estates that we are experiencing now and which is set to increase in scope and number in the future. That can only come about through government legislation. But until we have a government committed to building state-funded housing for social rents and not affordable housing indexed to the financialised market and cross-subsidised by the demolition, privatisation and redevelopment of council estates – which doesn’t look like happening any time soon – the immediate question posed by the housing crisis is what we can do to change current council policy and practice within the limitations of existing government legislation.

ASH believes in the greater devolution of central government policy to local authorities. Much of the current UK housing crisis derives from the hugely disproportionate power wielded by London, economically and politically. Germany, by comparison, because of the history of its formation, has a far more devolved structure of governance with federated states having more responsibility for policy and access to the finances to implement it. There have been gestures towards such devolution in the UK through the devolution Acts of 1998, which granted limited legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, followed by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, as well as the Local Government Act 2000 that allowed directed elected executive mayors for metropolitan boroughs and regions in England and Wales; but when the assembly members and mayors come from the same parties as those in Westminster, their priorities are to promote and defend party policy, whether or not it benefits or has the support of the community over whom they have statutory authority. What we need is to return councils to greater accountability to their constituents; and that can only be done through greater transparency, not as a principle or a recommendation, but as enforceable legislation.

Trafalgar Place in Elephant and Castle, the first redevelopment site of the demolished Heygate estate, was built on land cleared by Southwark council of 104 council homes, which were replaced by developers Lendlease with 235 properties, of which only 8 are for social rent. Advertised on Asian property markets, 2-bedroom flats on the new development sold for £725,000 in a borough in which there are already over 5,400 homes standing empty.

5. Enforcement

Without the means to enforce these solutions, which is currently lacking in housing legislation, policy changes will remain at the level of recommendations, lured with the incentive of public funding and rewarded with the granting of planning permission, but with no power to intervene in or determine what a housing proposal must provide. Contrary to the increasingly loud calls from politicians, builders, developers, housing associations and architects for more deregulation to free up the market for further monopolisation and expansion of the highly lucrative housing crisis, what we need are more stringent criteria for both the awarding of public funding and the granting of planning permission.

At the same time, with these requirements should come the freedom and means for councils to build the housing constituents need. This means, for a start, lifting the cap on councils borrowing against their Housing Revenue Account, which was introduced by the Self-Financing Determinations of February 2012, so that councils can finance the building of homes for social rent; and, rather than allowing councils to collect the receipts from Right to Buy properties instead of them being collected by central government, we should abolish altogether this policy which, since it was introduced in 1980, has hemorrhaged nearly 2 million council homes (1,936,431 as of 2016-17) to leaseholders, with over 40 per cent now being rented out for significantly higher rents by private landlords, often to councils trying to house their ever increasing numbers of homeless constituents.

In addition, we should reduce or remove altogether Value Added Tax on the refurbishment of existing homes, which is charged at the standard rate of 20 per cent. At present, homes empty for more than 10 years are zero rated, with 5 per cent charged on those empty for 2 years. By comparison, all new-build dwellings are exempt from VAT. As an example, at the request of Tower Hamlets council, John Rowan and Partners consultancy has estimated the refurbishment of the 51 dwellings in Treves House and Lister House in Whitechapel at £7.4 million (of which £0.77 million is for fees, another £0.77 million is for preliminaries, overheads and profit, and £1.2 million is for VAT). Whatever the validity of these estimates – which at around £145,000 per dwelling are more than three-and-a-half times the estimate of £40,000 per dwelling for refurbishing the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace and £45,000-65,000 for refurbishing the Aylesbury estate in Camberwell – Phillip Arnold Auctions, also at the request of Tower Hamlets council, has estimated the freehold value of the site at £5-7 million ‘with vacant possession’, but with the potential for considerable value uplift if redeveloped as higher density residential housing. To this end, John Rowan and Partners have estimated the cost of compensating leaseholders for their demolished homes and constructing a development of 115 properties in their place at £37.1 million, with no VAT. So although demolition and redevelopment is always far more expensive than refurbishment, even when the figures for the latter have been artifically increased, this financial weighting of VAT in favour of demolition contributes to the dismissal of refurbishment options on housing estates as financially unviable by councils and developers interested only in squeezing the greatest possible profit from a regeneration scheme.

We should also reverse the Localism Act 2011, which under Sections 148 and 149 radically changed both the criteria by which households qualify for council housing and the duty of care the council has to house them. A survey by Inside Housing in March 2016 found that, since the Localism Act came into effect in June 2012, 159 English councils had struck 237,793 people off their waiting lists and barred a further 42,994 new applicants. But to address the sheer number of empty properties in London, a tax on vacant homes such as Vancouver, for example, has introduced to address the city’s housing crisis would be a start; although, as I said, it’s not likely to deter offshore companies registered in tax havens. In addition to progressive taxation, we need new legislation compelling a dwelling to be used as such, and giving those in need of housing the right to occupy empty properties.

We shouldn’t imagine that such measures are not going to meet with resistance from councils and private developers alike; in anticipation of which, the laws on squatting – which were changed in 2012 in anticipation of the thousands of properties the housing crisis would leave empty in London  – should be changed back. Currently, under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, properties classified as residential, no matter how long they have stood empty and unused, cannot be legally squatted, and to do so is now a criminal offence punishable by up to 51 weeks imprisonment. As a consequence, as of February 2016 – not including the City of Westminster, which refused to supply numbers but where 1 in 10 properties are owned by off-shore companies – more than 22,000 properties in London had been left empty for more than six months; over a third of these, 8,560 properties, had been empty for over two years; and 1,150 properties had been empty for over a decade. Changing the laws on squatting to make these properties available for use as homes would not only house thousands of the capital’s homeless, but act as a considerable disincentive to the offshore companies, land trust beneficiaries, oligarchs and arms dealers that are turning London’s stock of housing, old and new, into investments for global capital.

For the same reasons, London’s local authorities have shown no hesitation in using their powers of compulsory purchase to buy the homes of leaseholders against their wishes, both on and off council estates, in order to demolish them as part of an estate regeneration scheme – even when the compensation they offer home-owners is on average a quarter required to purchase a property on the new development, or to do so has been, in the judgement of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights under Article 8 (‘the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’) and Protocol 1 (‘entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions’), and in contravention of Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. There should be no obstacle, therefore, to councils using the same powers to issue compulsory purchase orders on London’s 22,000 long-term empty homes in a city where, in 2017, 164,365 people – an extraordinary 1 in every 53 of the population – were homeless and living in temporary accomodation, including bed and breakfast rooms, homeless hostels or sleeping rough; 243,668 households were on local authority housing waiting lists; and 225,000 people under the age of 25 were forced to sleep in unsafe places, including sofa surfing, sleeping rough, on public transport or in unsecured squats.

However, to free up properties purchased for their exchange value and make them available for their use value as homes for the people who need them, a more fundamental change in our laws needs to happen, according to which the rights of people to use a property as a home takes precedence over the rights of ownership over that property. This means far more than making housing a human right, as a report into the global housing crisis by the United Nations has called for. It means drawing up housing policy that is not founded, as current policy is, on the good-will of developers and builders or the profit motives of the housing market to supply housing in which UK citizens can afford to live, rather than, as they have done and will continue to do, the deposit boxes in the sky springing up across our cities on the ruins of demolished council estates. It means writing policy that will stop the estate regeneration programme that in its current form is the driving force for London’s property boom, demolishing the capital’s stock of social housing, clearing the land it stands on for redevelopment, and building in its place the investment opportunities, second homes and rental portfolios that are leaving so many thousands of homes at both ends of this process standing empty.

But it also means completely restructuring the councils responsible for implementing the housing policy we need. Rather than being a temporary school for career politicians who are parachuted in to represent their party rather than their constituents, we need representatives directed elected from the community. Before the recent local elections, ASH was repeatedly asked which of the three political parties with a chance of taking control of a council residents should vote for. Our answer was: none of them. Time and again the estate regeneration programme has demonstrated that councillors that belong to one of the major political parties will privilege the interests of their party, either voluntarily or under the threat of having the party whip withdrawn, over the needs of the constituents who elected them to represent them. Rather than continue to participate in this entirely false model of democracy, in which elected representatives of the people are forced to vote on the commands of the council leader or face suspension or even de-selection, we advised residents to elect one of the members of their own community, preferably from their own estate, to represent them. Ward councillors are elected on a couple of thousand votes and can win on differences of a few hundred or less. With the thousands of residents they can potentially galvanise to vote for a single candidate, estate communities can act as a real catalyst for returning the democratic accountability to local government that is so glaringly absent.

Of course, as the local elections demonstrated, the major political parties know this, and work hard to undermine communities who try to organise themselves to this end. Through our own experience we know just how difficult it is to motivate residents into sustained and organised activity with a clear set of objectives and an agreed plan of how to achieve them; but if even one seat is lost to the elected representative of an estate threatened with demolition – as happened in the Gipsy Hill ward in Lambeth to a resident of Central Hill estate standing as a Green Party candidate – the accountability of councillors to their constituents will increase, with the threat of other estates doing the same hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles.

The Aylesbury estate in Camberwell, whose 2,758 homes, gradually decanted and demolished by Southwark council since 2004, are awaiting redevelopment by Notting Hill Genesis Housing Association. Their regeneration scheme will result in the loss of 778 homes for social rent in a borough with 11,000 households on the housing waiting list. Photo by Alessia Gammarota.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work, you can make a donation through PayPal:

2 thoughts on “London’s Empty Housing: Causes, Existing Policy, Future Solutions and their Enforcement

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is a considerably longer read than we would normally post up on here. However, as we have written and said more times than we care to remember, what happens with the housing crisis in London has a direct impact on us out here in Essex. This piece looks at the root causes of that crisis, how existing policy does nothing to resolve it and puts on the table, some interesting ideas on how to change things…


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