Why scaremongering about an empty homes crisis in London is rather like the Essex Lion scare
“UK has empty homes equivalent of a city the size of Leeds,” hollered TV presenter George Clarke on Channel 4’s The Great British Property Scandal last year – and the nation was shocked.
Empty homes campaigners were up in arms, the topic trended on Twitter and we were bombarded with heavy stats like ‘one in ten Londoners are on a housing waiting list.’
But wait a moment. Is there really an empty homes scandal, or are we crying wolf?
Crying wolf I’d say.
There are around two million homes in the capital and figures by the Empty Homes Agency suggest that over 74,000 of these lie vacant.
That’s a pretty small percentage and there are pretty damn good reasons why these properties are empty.
“At any given time there will be empty properties in London, or well, anywhere else in the world!” says Liam Bailey, head of residential research, Knight Frank. “From not finding a suitable renter to refurbishing, there can be many reasons to leave a property empty. Having said that, there aren’t so many vacant properties in the capital that we make a scandal out of it.”
Let’s take a look at the five London boroughs with maximum number of empty homes:
Westminster – 3,759
Croydon – 3,638
Lambeth – 3,591
Greenwich – 3,416
Hackney – 3,180
The biggest ‘villain’ in the scandal is the ‘borough of the rich’ Westminster. It has over 3,700 vacant homes. Campaigners claim the real reason there is so much squatting in Westminster is because the stay-away tax haven tenants don’t live there and the neighbourhood is just the favourite place for Qatari kingpins to plonk their gold pennies.
Agreed, Belgravia is dark and empty but so is my backyard. Why do we care? It’s their property, they can do whatever they want with it. And if these empty properties are “affecting London’s economy”, then chancellor George Osborne has dealing with them on his to-do list. In his 2012 budget, he announced a 15 per cent tax on all properties over £2m bought through corporate envelopes or tax havens.
Other properties are empty for technical reasons.
After a property owner dies, it takes at least a year to transfer assets, pay debts and in many cases arrange funds to foot the inheritance tax bill. Law firm Inheritance Solutions suggests that families inheriting multiple assets should expect to spend at least two years dealing with the inheritance process.
Another obvious explanation for vacant homes is refurbishment. For example – London-based construction company Sanico took two years to renovate a four-story South Kensington property.
Furthermore, there may also be a time-lag between tenants moving out and moving into a new home.
So it’s a non-crisis. But this won’t stop the deluge of strange solutions to solve our alleged housing crisis.
In a recent article in The Guardian, George Monbiot unveiled the “hidden truth about our housing crisis”. He made the ludicrous suggestion of measuring a person’s “housing foot print” i.e the number of bedrooms divided by the number of people in the household.
“Those who use more than their fair share should pay for the privilege, with a big tax penalty for under-occupation. If it prompts them either to take in a lodger or to move into a smaller home in a lower tax band, so much the better,” wrote Monbiot.
So, essentially, he suggests that although you might choose the carpets and floor tiles of the houses, but the government should get a say in deciding how many people put up at your home.
Therefore, the empty property scandal brewing in London is much like the Essex Lion – pointless hysteria over something that probably doesn’t even exist.
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