Why are there over 5,400 empty homes in Southwark?

This post is by Guy Shrubsole and Anna Powell-Smith

Last summer, we worked with the Guardian to reveal the billionaire, offshore owners of some of the 1,652 empty homes in Kensington & Chelsea. This week, we’ve launched endemptyhomes.org, a mini-campaign targeting London council candidates ahead of the May 3rd local elections, urging them to pledge to double council tax on empty properties if elected. At the time of writing, scores of candidates have already pledged – please visit the site to see if your candidates have done so and contact them if they haven’t!

In the process of setting up the campaign, we were surprised to find that the borough one of us lives in, Southwark, has the most empty homes of any London borough – a staggering 5,418, as of Nov 2017, with 1,035 empty for more than two years (‘long-term empty homes’). We decided to investigate: where are these empty homes, who owns them, and why are there so many in Southwark? 

Crunching the data

The 5,418 empty homes figure we’ve cited at endemptyhomes.org is from the Nov 2017 council tax base statistics, published annually by the Ministry of Housing (MHCLG). These figures are collated by central government based on what Local Authorities send them. They accord with what Southwark Council themselves have stated in recent answers to questions from opposition councillors.

(Incidentally, a Liberal Democrat election leaflet that came through the letterbox recently stated there were 6,000 empty homes in Southwark; we asked Southwark Lib Dems for the source, which is a slightly different MHCLG dataset showing Southwark has 5,944 empty homes.)

But where are these empty homes? Barring a leak or mistaken data release, of the sort made by Kensington & Chelsea Council last summer, it’s very difficult to say – and repeated attempts by requesters to get this information released have all failed, as a glance at FOI responses on WhatDoTheyKnow shows.

However, there are other clues buried in the data that can point us closer to where these vacant properties are, and why they’re empty.

First off, here’s MHCLG’s breakdown by council tax bands of Southwark’s long-term empty homes (all currently charged a 50% premium on top of existing council tax):

Band A Band B Band C Band D Band E Band F Band G Band H Total
Total 301 453 155 61 22 14 19 10 1,035

And here are all the other empty homes, vacant for less than two years and exempt from a premium charge (they don’t get a discount, either):

Band A Band B Band C Band D Band E Band F Band G Band H Total
Total 363 1,109 1,062 693 626 292 191 47 4,383

From these, we can start to get a sense of the value of the properties in question – or at least, their value back in 1991, the last time council tax bands were reviewed. We can see that the majority of the long-term empty properties are actually relatively low-value properties in bands A-C: possibly council housing, or terraced private houses.

To search for other clues, we decided to check through Southwark Council meeting minutes to see if there had been more detailed discussion of empty homes stats. Everything we can find is in this google spreadsheet. In one recent March 2018 response to a councillor’s question, the leader of the council states that the current official total of 5,418 empty homes “includes, for example, 1,800 homes which are empty for less than three months”, where the reason might be temporary vacancies between tenancies. That seems less of a problem than longer-term empty homes.

To really start to pin down what’s going on, however, we need to turn to a third source – an FOI response released by Southwark Council in September 2016, breaking down the number of empty homes left vacant for over a year by postcode area, and dividing them into private and council-owned housing. This allows us to see the broad geographical spread of empty properties, and make some more specific, educated guesses as to their locations. Here’s the response, and below is the ‘heatmap’ we’ve made of numbers of empty homes by postcode area – the darker the colour, the more vacant properties:

Let’s focus on the two postcode areas with by far the most empty homes: SE1 and SE17.

SE1 – 471 empty private homes

This part of Southwark includes the South Bank and some of the highest average house prices in the borough (£8,750 per square metre, going by 2017 Land Registry data). It also includes at least one recent luxury development that’s become notorious for staying empty: the Shard. A Guardian investigation last summer found that all 10 of the penthouse flats in the upper floors of the Shard remained unsold, five years after they’d come onto the market. Given that they’d been going for £30m or more, they’re presumably in the uppermost council tax band, so could be the 10 band H long-term empty homes recorded in the official data. The Guardian quotes property analyst Henry Pryor on why apartments in the Shard have remained empty: “Rich people don’t want to shell out zillions living south of the river, it’s a shock enough living anywhere south of the [Hyde] park.” Well, we south Londoners know our place.

Also in SE1 and a possible candidate for some higher-end empty flats are the Neo Bankside apartments next to the Tate, built on land that was bought up by the Grosvenor Estate. But here there are clearly at least some residents – indeed, they’ve tried to take the Tate to court for invasion of privacy, because the museum’s new viewing platform lets the great unwashed gawp into their glass-fronted living rooms.

A more clear-cut case of an empty building can be seen not far from Borough Tube – 222 Borough High Street: shuttered, grimy and with smashed windows, it’s appeared to be empty for years (see pic below). According to the Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial dataset it’s owned by one Plinius Ltd – Companies House shows this to be a development firm and that it has taken out a loan from an Italian bank for the property.

222 Borough High St

Other candidates in SE1 include 195 Union Street (boarded up and with private security notices); and 38-40 Southwark Street, which has a mysterious overseas corporate owner based in Gibraltar by the name of Henry George Holdings Ltd. When one of us took a look at it from street level, its upper floors appeared to be empty and undergoing renovation. The name of its owner certainly arouses suspicion: Henry George was the 19th century thinker who railed against land banking, and proposed a Land Value Tax to discourage the hoarding of vacant plots of land by developers. A coincidence, or a knowing joke?

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 17.53.15

Screengrab from Who Owns England’s map here.

Just to the south, over in SE11, is a street that has at least four empty council homes in it – Hayles Street: you can read about the empty homes on it here and here.

SE17 – 539 empty council homes

Meanwhile over in SE17, there are far fewer private empty homes, but a staggering 539 empty council homes. Here, it seems likely that the empty housing is nearly all in one area: the Aylesbury Estate.


Image: Wikipedia, public domain.

The Aylesbury Estate has been subject to a hugely controversial regeneration programme, which has seen Southwark Council apply to buy up several of the blocks off its leaseholders using compulsory purchase powers, with a view to demolishing them. Journalist Anna Minton has written about the Aylesbury in her book Big Capitalnoting that whilst the council is legally bound to offer a ‘fair market value’ to the leaseholders, “it is beyond doubt that these prices bear no relation to the value of the land in this part of central London.” This means that the residents, once bought out, are unable to afford to still live in the area afterwards. It’s this kind of gentrification that has sparked wave after wave of social housing activism in the past few years.

It also means, currently, various blocks on the Aylesbury Estate have not yet been demolished but are full of empty flats. An FOI response from Southwark Council in 2015 admitted that there were 542 vacant properties on the Aylesbury Estate at that time – a suspiciously similar figure to the 539 empty council properties in SE17 recorded in their 2016 FOI response. Indeed, this 2018 council minute states that the council’s empty homes figures still include “properties which are being demolished, such as on the Aylesbury”.

Conclusion: regeneration gone wrong

On the face of it, there seems a big difference between empty luxury apartments in the Shard, and empty council housing on the Aylesbury Estate. But perhaps they are just two sides of the same coin: a misguided approach to regeneration that has resulted in existing council housing residents being ejected and left unable to buy locally, whilst also failing to attract the super-wealthy to move south of the river. Rather than regenerate Southwark for the people who currently live here, developers have inevitably sought to maximise profits, and screamed ‘viability’ if pressured to include even minimal allocations for affordable housing.

Faced with this, many councils claim their hands are tied by the planning system. Certainly, there’s a clear need for reform of the rules around viability, a stronger definition of what genuinely affordable housing is, and a mandatory provision of 35% affordable housing in any new development.

But councils are also gaining new powers. One such new power is the ability to double council tax on empty homes. That will have little effect on empty flats in the Aylesbury, where the owner is Southwark Council themselves. But it may have an impact on vacant private properties in SE1 and elsewhere, discouraging owners from leaving them lying empty for so long, and raising cash instead for affordable housing in other parts of the borough. Councils should use these new powers to crack down on empty homes: please urge your council candidates to take the End Empty Homes pledge ahead of the May 3rd elections. endemptyhomes.org

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