Would you dob in your neighbour's empty home?
Curtain twitchers are being recruited to join the fight against London's empty homes
Morning — here’s what we’ve spied in the capital on Tuesday, March 7, 2023:
🏚️ Adding insult to the injury of London’s housing crisis, many properties across the city are just sitting empty. But curtain twitchers are coming to the rescue — one borough is launching a hotline for residents to report neighbouring properties they suspect have been vacant for six months.
Westminster council is setting up the dedicated phone number as part of a wider crackdown on long term empty properties in the borough. It’s using “community intelligence”, as its new strategy document calls it, to try to end the absurdity of at least 1,150 empty homes in central London amid a chronic housing shortage, surging rents and rising homelessness. Yet the big problem facing the council and wider London is that the true number of empty properties in the city is unknown.
Government data shows that in the past ten years the number of vacant properties across London has risen from 59,313 to 89,508 – now about 2% of the housing stock. Yet these statistics are collated from a particular source – council tax returns – that only counts properties that are continuously unoccupied for six months. That excludes many properties which are occasionally used as a bolthole, but end up being empty for at least six months in total throughout the year. The data also relies on owners or their agents self-reporting — a problem for many councils which lack the resources to go round inspecting themselves.
Enter Westminster’s hotline, which the council hopes will result in neighbours helping to identify the less obviously empty properties. A visibility derelict building covered in graffiti is one thing, but many of London’s vacant properties are flats hidden in big, flashy blocks, and so harder to spot.
More depressingly, even if Westminster’s phone lines are flooded, it’s not entirely clear what it or indeed any borough can really do about empty properties with their current powers. Many councils in the capital already charge an “empty property premium” – double the normal rates of council tax or higher on properties that have been empty for at least two years. But their more hardcore options come with strings attached. Councils can use ‘compulsory purchase orders’ to force an owner to sell, but even if they demonstrate doing so is in the public interest to the secretary of state, who signs it off, they then have to cough up enough cash for London’s high property prices. In Westminster, the average property price is £930,185. Another option are ‘empty dwelling management orders’, but these can only be used on properties associated with vandalism or anti-social behaviour — not your typical empty house in Belgravia or Knightsbridge. Councils then must charge rent for the acquired property at market rates, which isn’t a particularly viable option if housing low income households or the homeless is your aim.
It’s at least interesting to see the impact of Labour taking control of Westminster in the 2022 local elections for the first time in the council’s 58-year history. The empty property crackdown comes shortly after the borough launched a campaign against “dirty money”, which is seeing it take on shell companies, Russian oligarchs and even American candy stores on Oxford Street.
👩🎓 Speaking of snitching — a London university has come under fire for encouraging students to report striking staff. Queen Mary University of London is facing accusations it’s “turning students into spies” [cough] to gather data on who went on strike in November and February.
🚌 Higher passenger fares across all TfL services have come into effect for the year ahead. The average single journey bus fare has increased by 10p and the average pay-as-you-go Tube fare has increased by 30p.
👨⚖️ The former Met officer who killed Sarah Everard in 2021 has been sentenced for three counts of indecent exposure. The police handling of these incidents is currently being reviewed, as the most recent happened just days before he abducted Everard.
💃 Finally — Tottenham Hotsput Stadium is in trouble with the local council after selling tickets to Beyoncé’s extra gig. The north London club is permitted to host six concerts at its stadium a year under its current licence — a number it had met, until Beyoncé announced an extra (now sold out) gig on February 7, 2023.
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