Image: The Grenfell Tower fire. Natalie Oxford, Wikimedia Commons.
As the nightmare of the Grenfell Tower disaster continues to unfold, one of the many painful questions being asked by survivors is: ‘Where are we going to live now?’
Kensington & Chelsea Council have still been unable to give firm assurances that residents will be rehoused in the area, issuing a statement on Friday afternoon (later contradicted) that “Given the number of households involved, it is possible the council will have to explore housing options that may become available in other parts of the capital”.
On Friday, the Times reported that Jeremy Corbyn had an alternative solution. “Corbyn: seize properties of the rich for Grenfell homeless” ran its above-the-fold headline (£). This was not, of course, what Corbyn had actually proposed, as the article itself revealed. In a parliamentary debate, the Labour leader had suggested that “Properties must be found, requisitioned if necessary, to make sure those residents do get rehoused locally… It cannot be acceptable that in London you have luxury buildings and flats kept as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live.”
Not quite the State appropriation of private property conveyed by the sub-editor’s fevered headline, then – but a proposal for making better use of empty housing which happens to be supported by 59% of the British public, according to YouGov.
So how many empty homes are there in Kensington? A lot, it turns out. The Department for Communities and Local Government regularly publishes statistics on vacant dwellings, broken down by local authority area. The latest figures for Kensington & Chelsea reveal there are 1,399 vacant dwellings in the borough, as of April 2017 – and the number hasn’t dropped below a thousand for over a decade. 600 people lived in Grenfell Tower – so there are more than enough empty homes in the borough to house them all, if the properties could be accessed.
Source: DCLG figures, graphed by author
But where are these empty homes? And who owns them?
It turns out that Kensington Council themselves know precisely where they are.
In a report published in July 2015, the council’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee examined in detail the problem of ‘buy to leave’ in the borough. ‘Buy to leave’ is the phenomenon of purchasing a property where the buyer has no intention to live in it; where the home is regarded purely as an investment – one that, in London’s super-heated property market, will rapidly accrue in value.
The council’s report used a variety of methods to locate empty housing, from council tax registers and payment data, to energy use and Land Registry records. Their findings broadly corroborate central government stats – that there are around a thousand long-term empty homes in Kensington & Chelsea. And on page 13 of the report, they display an extraordinary map of the 941 homes classified as unoccupied dwellings for the purposes of council tax:
The truly insane thing about this map are the blue dots showing homes that have been empty for 4,200 – 5,734 days. That’s homes that have lain empty for between 11 and 15 years. I count about 50 of them.
As the report noted, “High numbers of empty properties can be found in the Brompton and Hans Town Ward and Courtfield” – the most affluent wards in the south-east, at the opposite end of the borough from Grenfell Tower. A tale of two cities, indeed.
So who owns these empty homes? Kensington Council haven’t published the addresses, clearly wishing to discourage squatting, though I will attempt to get them under Freedom of Information law. Without the precise locations it’s very difficult to research the owners. But knowing that the biggest rash of empty homes is in Brompton & Hans Town Ward, we can draw some broad conclusions.
Firstly, the area is plagued by offshore owners. As Private Eye’s map of offshore ownership shows, much of south Kensington has been gobbled up by firms with names like ‘Property International Holdings Ltd’, based in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, or Bermuda, or Jersey. This is property speculation and tax avoidance of the most socially irresponsible kind, pushing up the price of housing for the rest of us.
Red properties are owned offshore. Screengrab from map.whoownsengland.org
Secondly, a huge swathe of this area is owned by the Cadogan Estate.
This 93-acre estate, spanning most of the properties between Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, as well as further afield, has been in the hands of the Earl Cadogan and his family for over 300 years. The estate’s website has a map of its property empire, reproduced more clearly by Property Week here and below:
The Cadogan Estate contains some of the most sought-after real estate in London – such as its luxury flats at Cadogan Square, pictured below:
And yet, incredibly, many of these flats appear not to be lived in, for years at a time. This Evening Standard article from 2014 names Cadogan Square as a particular victim of the ‘buy to leave’ phenomenon: “Officials in Kensington and Chelsea’s council-tax department told the Standard that Cadogan Square is the residential spot where empty homes crop up time and again.” The council’s map of empty homes, shown earlier, confirms Cadogan Square to be a true ‘ghost town’, with a high concentration of properties unoccupied for 5, 10, even 15 years.
But this throws up an even more staggering thought. The freeholds for all these houses are owned by the Cadogan Estate. They sell the leases for millions of pounds and are billionaires as a result. And yet many of the tenants aren’t even living in them. It’s possible that they have negotiated lengthy leaseholds that will still accrue in value over the years when they come to sell them on. But it is possible that some of those renting from the Cadogans are so obscenely wealthy that they don’t even bother to take up their tenancies and are not even making an investment decision.
What is to be done? Clearly the immediate overwhelming priority is finding viable, local housing for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Kensington contains over a thousand empty homes, some empty for 15 years, some likely owned by offshore companies avoiding tax, some owned by the wealthy Cadogan Estate and leased to absentee tenants who appear to have more money than sense. If there is any way of making these homes useful to those in need, it should be done.
The sad reality is that without a change in the law, this is likely impossible. But the law could be changed: not to allow the State to seize property, as some fevered rightwing commentators fear, but simply to charge very high council tax on unoccupied properties. In England, councils are allowed to charge up to 50% extra council tax on any home that’s been empty for more than 2 years. But in Scotland, the rules are tighter: local authorities are able to increase council tax by 100% on homes empty for 1 year or more. Why can’t the whole of the UK move to this tighter system, and penalise the owners of long-term empty homes?
In the meanwhile, the empty flats of the super-rich in Cadogan Square will stare vacantly, uncaring, across the borough of Kensington to the empty, blackened shell of Grenfell Tower: two cities, a world apart.