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'Not the right housing' - Increase of empty homes discredits record rise in housebuilding, say campaigners

PUBLISHED: 17:33 18 November 2019 | UPDATED: 17:46 18 November 2019

Blocks in West Hampstead with some lights on and others off. Picture: Polly Hancock

Blocks in West Hampstead with some lights on and others off. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Homebuilding may be at a 30-year high, but experts say a rise in the number of long-term empty properties shows the wrong kind of housing is being built.

Bezier apartments in Old Street. Picture: Tony Hisgett/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)Bezier apartments in Old Street. Picture: Tony Hisgett/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Last week the government announced 241,130 new homes were created in England in 2018/19 - the most since records began in 1991.

More than 31,000 were in London, including 2,777 that were office-to-residential conversions.

But the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has also released the year's council tax data, showing a third consecutive rise in the number of long-term empty homes across the country - up 10,000 to 226,000.

Chris Bailey of Islington charity Action on Empty Homes said it was striking that most of the areas with the highest increase in empty homes were also seeing the highest numbers of new builds.

Centre Point in Tottenham Court Road, Camden. Redeveloped homes were taken off the market in October by developer Almacantar due to 'silly' offers from overseas investors. Picture: Matt Buck (CC BY-SA 2.0)Centre Point in Tottenham Court Road, Camden. Redeveloped homes were taken off the market in October by developer Almacantar due to 'silly' offers from overseas investors. Picture: Matt Buck (CC BY-SA 2.0)

"We see this as a further indication of how we are failing to build housing which meets our housing needs as opposed to just trying to hit government target numbers and ensuring developers profit," he told this paper.

Of the areas with a 30pc increase in long-term empty homes - long-term being at least six months - 51pc are in London, with 14pc in the East and 14pc in the West Midlands.

Hounslow has the country's biggest increase, up 158pc from 191 to 492. Harrow is up 137pc, from 299 to 708 and Barking and Dagenham has seen a rise of 98pc from 106 to 206.

Haringey's figures have risen 36pc from 732 to 996, Hackney's are up 24pc from 933 to 1,154 and Islington 21pc from 621 to 750. Camden's figure rose by 3pc from 1,210 to 1,241.

Only 10 London councils saw a drop in the number of empties, including Southwark which fell 17pc from 1,766 to 1,469 - though it still has the most in the capital. Overall in London the figure was up 10pc from 22,481 to 24,677.

Chris added: "There is speculation unsold newbuilds are contributing, alongside a general slowing of the housing market lowering transactions.

"One South East officer told me that of his 600 or so long-term empties, over a quarter were unsold newbuilds, including both market sale and so-called affordable shared ownership units.

"We can add to that the stories we know about in London where luxury developments like flats in Centrepoint remain unsold as Brexit jitters lead to developers pulling them off the market.

"When we set this against rising numbers of street homeless fuelled by benefit cuts and Universal Credit sanctions, and increased numbers of Londoners in temporary accommodation, it's difficult to call this anything other than a scandal."

Nationally 85,000 families including 126,000 children are stuck in often unsuitable and over-crowded temporary accommodation, at a cost of £1bn to taxpayers.

London councils are paying £600m to put more than 56,000 families and 88,000 children in temporary homes, and the huge numbers have led to new mega hostels being built in place of permanent housing.

The capital's rough sleeping figures are also at a record high. Some 8,885 people slept rough between April 2018 and March this year.

The national Coalition for Community Investment, led by Action on Empty Homes, wants the government to support local authorities to enable them to bring homes back into use.

Ahead of the election it is calling on parties to pledge to give councils more planning powers, as well as create a grant programme and a separate fund to sustainably refurbish long-term empty homes.

In August Jeremy Corbyn told this paper he would give councils more power and introduce a levy on second homes on the way to building one million genuinely affordable homes.

Director of Action on Empty Homes, Will McMahon, said: "As Britain decides its future we once again see housing as a top issue among voters' concerns, yet every government housing statistic is going the wrong way.

"To see empty homes numbers shoot up for a third year alongside rising homelessness is simply unacceptable. Our housing market is not delivering the housing we need.

"At a time of national housing crisis we cannot afford to see 226,000 homes stand empty across the country because of the lack of a government strategy to support councils to bring them back into use."

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