Where are the empty homes in Kensington?

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.

Empty properties K&C - DCLG 2017

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:

Empty properties Kensington map

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 22.42.11

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:

Cadogan Estate1

The Cadogan Estate contains some of the most sought-after real estate in London – such as its luxury flats at Cadogan Square, pictured below:

52_Cadogan_Square_07

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.

Update, 21st July 2017: FOI reveals 1,857 empty homes in Kensington

I’ve just received a response back to my Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Kensington council, requesting the addresses of the empty homes they detailed in their 2015 report.

The council won’t release the addresses for fear of encouraging squatting. Fair enough.

But they have been able to release an updated set of figures on empty properties in the borough, which appears to be based on council tax bands. This reveals that the number of empty homes in Kensington has risen to 1,857 – even higher than the DCLG figure of 1,399 empty properties.

The FOI disclosure also shows, for the first time, a breakdown of the number of empty properties by each ward – showing that, as suspected, Brompton and Hans Town Ward has the most: 260 empty homes, by RKBC’s reckoning. This is the Ward with large numbers of offshore owners and the reputed ‘ghost town’ around Cadogan Square.

Here’s a summary table showing the breakdown by council tax ‘classes’, which RKBC define on their website here:

Key Discount Class  Total
C = Unoccupied & substantially unfurnished 1,111
D = Unoccupied, works in progress, less than 12 months 50
L = Empty property (more than 2 years) 50% premium charge 696
Grand Total 1,857

 

35 thoughts on “Where are the empty homes in Kensington?

  1. Hi Guy – excellent piece – assuming it’s OK to share? Adam

    On Sun, Jun 18, 2017 at 11:24 AM, Who owns England? wrote:

    > guy posted: “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 & Che” >

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  2. excellent piece Guy. Did you see my twitter thread from yesterday (saturday) detailing those RBKC Councillors who had property interests (landlords) were developers or other property professionals. I though it was quite revealing – 14 Tory and 1 Labour councillor our of 50 Councillors. One works for Policy Exchange as Director of Research.

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  3. That’s the main problem here and that a few million pounds is a drop in the ocean to those with wealth as it’s impossible to spend and as each year goes by their wealth just increases

    we need to have new laws in where all renting and buying of homes becomes a profession and like law everyone is accountable

    We need to have laws which make it impossible to just buy a home here in the uk and not live in it

    very basic things like this over the next few years will make a great difference in living in the uk as people will know from the off that a professional agent is just a phone call away to make sure any repairs that are needed are swiftly dealt with

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    1. Some German cities introduced such legislation a few years ago. Basically it allows cities where there is limits in housing supply to restrict conversion of homes that could be available for rent to change for other uses or just leave empty. The main purpose for this legislation was to restrict using places exclusively for services like Airbnb, but it could also be used for other services. The problem in the case of Kensington will be that unless you compulsory purchase the properties or subsidise reuse, you could only enforce renting for private sector rental market. Still, it would relieve some pressure from the overall London housing market.

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  4. Well done on the research, the article is very useful but I’ve got some criticisms for you:

    1) “Corbyn: seize properties of the rich” was the headline. As you yourself noted, Corbyn had said “Properties must be found, requisitioned if necessary”, Despite you claiming these are two different things, Corbyn thinks obtaining properties for Grenfell survivors is “ncessary”, and has called for properties to be requisitioned – “luxury” ones at that. The dictionary definition (and layperson usage) of “requisition” is “take”, “take over”, or commandeer. Luxury homes can’t be owned by “non-rich” people, virtually by definition. Ergo, “Seize properities of the rich” is an pretty accurate summary of the position Corbyn has taken, and he was fully quoted in the article. Denying this is pretty ridiculous, since not even Corbyn is denying that “seizing properties of the rich” is his stated aim.

    2) Corbyn has since said people should “occupy” these luxury homes, presumably without anyone even bothering to “requisition” them. That’s irresponsible and anyone followed Corbyn’s advice would be almost certainly in most cases be breaking the law. Leaders of political parties should not be encouraging the public to break the law – period. Especially when we’ve got mobs storming the town hall, carrying out vigilante attacks on people wearing suits in the vicinity of the council offices, calling for “rage” on “the streets” and implying we’re in a situation comparable to WWII (McDonnell in the later case). Is Corbyn aiming to be Prime Minister of a democratic country, or the head of a street mob?

    3) The homes empty for the longest are very likely to not even be connected to essential supplies – gas, electricity, water etc. They are also likely to be in a state of disrepair and it would be illegal for the state or council to house people in them without carrying out renovation works first – imagine housing a family in one of these “luxury homes” without running water. Irresponsible and unsafe, especially when they could be in a hotel.

    4) You say “If there is any way of making these homes useful to those in need, it should be done”, then acknowledge that this is “likely impossible” without a change in the law. To be precise: it IS impossible to legally seize these homes (or any others) quickly enough to achieve the stated purpose without a change in the law. The two main legal mechanisms – EDMO and CPO both take months at least – and in the case of CPO, involve buying the damn mansions at least at market value (i.e. £millions+), blowing holes in the council budget and making lives worse for many more poor people in the borough than at Grenfell. It’s also not a long term solution. Just because you want “something” to be done doesn’t mean it can be. I’d quite like all homeless veterans to have a home – do I get to break into the nearest mansion to give them one?

    5) Any change to the law would also take weeks and Parliament isn’t able to pass anything yet due to being in recess until 21 June. Needless to say, Corbyn or anyone else hasn’t tabled any draft legislation to hit the ground running in the event a change in the law is desirable. Oh, and without a change in the law, taking properties from their owners arbitrarily and without legal basis would breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article

    6) The Council Tax levy is pretty much irrelevant, it adds a few hundred pounds to the council tax bill. Why would offshore tax dodgers (assuming for now that’s who they are) owning properties worth millions care about that? Much better to adopt policies being tried in Vancover, Paris etc to levy punitive % taxes on the property, perhaps escalating by amount of time left empty.

    7) London does have quite a few empty homes at around 1-2% of total properties. But worldwide figures suggest London is one of the best in class compared to other major western cities or regions. Paris is 7,5%. New York is 9%. Vancover, Toronto, Hong Kong, Sydney, San Francisco, Los Angeles are all much higher than London. I think you should put this problem into context.

    So, what should be done instead of breaking into homes and/or ? Place residents in local hotels, or council properties, obviously pay all expenses. Seek volunteers in the local area as well to re-house victims. Carry out the fire investigation and public inquiry and hold people to account. And all of these things are being done. Perhaps poorly, perhaps not fast enough, all valid criticisms – but that doesn’t justify abandoning the rule of law.

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    1. Mark, thanks for your critique. 1) Re. Jeremy Corbyn’s own policy preferences – I couldn’t say, I’m not his spokesperson; I quote the article and what he said on Friday, not what he has said since, or what you imagine he may be thinking. 2) – As for (1). 3) – You seriously think luxury flats have no electricial connections or taps? I suspect the mains and water could be switched on immediately as anyone moved in and started paying the bills. 4), 5), 6)- as I say in the blog, without a change in the law, making better social use of these empty, wasted properties is impossible. I accept fully that changing the rate of Council Tax is likely to be insufficient to free up many more homes, though it would at least bolster council budgets for social housing. You are quite correct that making such a change in the way we do things would take some time; so will building replacement flats. You suggest housing people in hotels; how much will that cost for the months and years that it will take to rebuild local housing? And would it not be a good idea to start thinking, right now, about changing our laws to end the scandal of empty homes in a city where many are in need of a roof over their heads? 7) – note the title of this blog: ‘Who owns England’ – I investigate land and property ownership in England. Thankyou for the (unreferenced) international data; but I suspect knowing that London is less bad than some other cities is scant comfort to our capital’s homeless and destitute.

      Lastly, I note that your blog, Kingdom Comment, is very keen on Brexit. What was ‘taking back control’ all about if you continue to accept control by a bunch of offshore companies, vastly wealthy property speculators, and the whims of global capital?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I think I would prefer to leave the home I worked so hard for inlet, rather than rent to people that trash your beautiful home and couldn’t care less. Most don’t pay the rent after only a couple of months, knowing the law is on their side and it takes you 12 months to get them out.

    Why don’t the council’s force the tenants with a spare bedroom, and there’s plenty of them, to take a lodger. Problem solved.

    I don’t see why I should have something I’ve worked for all my life taken away from me because of pure jealousy.

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    1. I leave Sug’s comment here as an example of the ‘other side’ of the comments I’ve been getting on this post, and via twitter. Some people seem to take these investigations very personally, fearing for their own properties. Some have been overtly racist with their comments. That seems to be the sad state of the world we live in, that people would protect their own piece of territory over showing some common humanity to those in need. But to everyone else who’s offered nice comments and messages of support and hope, thankyou, and let’s build a better world together.

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  6. Hi there,
    Interesting article, particularly in light of this LSE report which seems to paint a very different picture – less than 1% “buy to leave”, the majority of properties owned by foreign investors are let out to Londoners. I realise this is looking at newly built properties – however, these “luxury apartments” are what has been contrasted with Grenfell Tower recently.

    You say “a lot of empty properties” and give a number, but how many homes are there in K&C? I’ve tried to find an answer but can’t. 1400 sounds like a lot, but in an area densely populated we really need to know the percentage this represents.

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    1. Your intuition is correct – K&BC actually has the highest household density in the entire country – 6,478 households per sq km. I’m sure there are more precise figures available but that means K&BC has around 78,500 households (158,649 population).

      So, 1,399 vacant dwellings are around 1.78%, pretty close to the national average of just under 2%. Based on this it is plausible that “buy to leave” is less than 1% of empty dwellings as of course people would have other reasons for a property being empty.

      Source: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/RBKC%20Population%20and%20HH%20Density.pdf

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  7. We need to come up with solutions for these desperate people, who managed to survive the Grenfell fire. It should take what it takes, in my view. We should be so ashamed that such a preventable fire even happened.Nohome, no matter it’s luxury status should be lying empty….achieving nothing, but extra wealth for the already extremely wealthy . Shameful!

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  8. It is unacceptable in a small country with such a small stock of affordable housing and such little available land for building that domestic property should be treated by some purely as an investment rather than as somewhere to live.

    I would propose that domestic property (essentially houses and flats) should be subject to an inoccupancy tax if left unoccupied for more than one year.

    This tax, equivalent to the council tax, would be levied on any property left unoccupied for 182 days or more in a calendar year. No one person (UK residents over the age of 18 years) could be said to be occupying more than one property simultaneously.

    The tax payable would be doubled every year while the property remained empty according to the above criteria.

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  9. Great Article!!! A lot of truths in this article. I’m actually building a business around empty properties in London. I was also rejected by councils with my request for the list of the empty properties under the FOI Act. But from my research it also confirmed that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have the most empty properties in London. I have now subscribed to your blogs! Keep up the good work!!!

    Like

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