Yesterday’s reveal in the Guardian of the big names who own empty homes in Kensington and Chelsea (K&C) is just the latest example of renewed interest in the subject since the Grenfell Fire.
However, looking at the official stats, you might be tempted to wonder whether the problem has been just a little overstated.
While any empty property in the capital is hugely frustrating – given London’s homelessness crisis and the delays in rehousing Grenfell survivors – the official stats put the number of empty properties in K&C at only 1,399, or less than 2% of the borough’s homes. Other reports have since said the number is higher, but only marginally and not completely out-of-step with national averages.
So how does this relatively small proportion tally with the political heat and general perception that there are now so many empty homes in K&C that parts of the borough are like ‘ghost towns’?
The answer is simple. While the official count focuses on the smaller number of long-term empty homes, other stats show that more than 10% of K&C’s homes sit empty most of the time.
Unfortunately, what to do about this altogether bigger underuse of London’s chronically scarce housing stock is a much trickier problem – but one that providing affordable housing can help tackle.
Empty homes vs. mostly empty homes
To be included in the statistics on empty homes a property needs to have been entirely unoccupied for at least six months. So even if a property is only occupied for a couple of weeks a year – or potentially even a couple of days – it doesn’t go into the stats as being empty.
In general, there is a reason that homes spend this length of time completely empty, like they’re being renovated or are part of a will that’s in the process of being executed.
This is obviously quite a narrow definition, so in order to get a fuller understanding of how well-used England’s housing is, an alternative measure of property vacancy is also collected as part of the census. These are homes that ‘unoccupied by usual residents’, i.e. homes that spend most of the year empty, like second or holiday homes.
K&C was one of only three boroughs in London (including the City) where more than 10% of properties were unoccupied when the last census was done in 2011. And given there are some parts of the borough where the rate was close to 25%, it’s easy to understand why they look like ghost towns.
Table: the boroughs in London with the highest and lowest rates of homes that are ‘unoccupied by usual residents’
|Total dwellings||Total with no usual residents||Proportion|
Highest rates of unoccupied homes
|City of London||5530||1145||20.71|
|Kensington and Chelsea||87705||9169||10.45|
Lowest rates of unoccupied homes
This chronic underuse of housing in the most expensive parts of the capital contrasts with the general picture of the way housing is used across London.
In most of London, high rents and house prices mean that very few properties sit empty for long – all but seven of London’s 33 boroughs (including the City) have unoccupied rates that are lower than the national average of 4.3%. Only 1.9% of homes in Waltham Forest were even temporarily unoccupied at the last census.
But the City, Westminster and K&C work differently. There are as many unoccupied homes in these three boroughs as there are in the top ten most occupied boroughs combined.
Incidentally, this is only one of the aspects of how Kensington’s housing market underuses the available stock. It is also
- the only borough in London that saw its population decline between 2001 and 2011, when the total London population grew by a massive 12%
- one of only two boroughs where, every year, more people knock through smaller properties to make bigger ones (called de-conversions) than chop up bigger properties to make smaller ones (conversions). Next door Westminster is the other.
While most of London is packing more people into its existing homes, dividing them up to create new ones and making sure they’re used to house people who actually live in the capital, K&C is hollowing out.
What can we do about the chronic underuse of mostly empty properties?
As I wrote earlier, there is normally a reason that properties are left entirely empty for more than six months. Thus, while there will always be a number of long-term empty homes, the way to speed up getting them back into use is to overcome the reason they’re empty.
Where properties are being renovated councils can accelerate it with carrots like money off VAT on building materials. Councils can use the threat of taking over the management of a property by using powers like Empty Dwelling Management Orders to speed up people who are dragging their feet. And ultimately, they should be able to implement those powers effectively where the owner shows no intention of bringing the property back into use.
But the solution to the chronic underuse represented by mostly empty homes is much tougher, particularly in places like K&C where the property values are stratospheric and many of their owners unbelievably wealthy.
You can’t force people to spend a particular number of nights in their property a year.
While the government’s surcharge on second homes is welcome, financial incentives are unlikely to seriously dent demand for second homes in K&C. Proposals to put a few grand on council tax bills for second home owners won’t make the slightest bit of difference to unoccupied rates there.
So what’s the answer? There are a few measures that could be explored. To start, it’s worth asking whether parts of K&C really need any more massive properties. Could planning policy be used to restrict de-conversions in these areas?
And fundamentally, while it doesn’t directly remedy the problem, building and keeping affordable housing in places like K&C helps contain it.
Unlike privately owned homes, affordable homes rarely go unoccupied for large periods of the year because their occupants need to live in them. Occupying the property as a primary residence can be made a condition of the lease or tenancy agreement.
In recent years, there has been a backlash against providing affordable and social housing in places like Kensington and Chelsea and even proposals to sell the council homes there.
But in reality, providing affordable housing in K&C not only helps to house the people on low and middle incomes who need somewhere affordable to live in the area – it also helps to tackle the crazy inefficiency of having homes that sit most of the year empty.