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The number of empty homes grows as quickly as we build them

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The rotting palaces of Billionaires’ Row epitomise London’s broken housing market, says Christine Murray

As the Conservatives tax the poor for unoccupied bedrooms in council flats, this week The Guardian revealed that £350 million-worth of property is standing empty on The Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, north London, also known as ‘Billionaires’ Row’.

The accompanying photographs revealed pigeon-infested mansions festooned with teetering crystal chandeliers, balustrades gilded with moss and mould-encrusted swimming pools. Ten houses on the street were previously owned by the Saudi royal family, and have stood unoccupied for more than 25 years.

The forced reinhabitation of these mansions would not go far towards solving the housing crisis. But rotting palaces are a provocative symbol for the trouble with the London market today. Estimates place the number of empty homes in the capital at 50,000, with approximately 700,000 England-wide. With London mayor Boris Johnson having pledged to build just 15,000 affordable homes, and the government committed to building 165,000, the number of vacant properties is not insignificant.

In response to the outrage over Billionaires’ Row, Johnson called for a 150 per cent council tax to be charged to owners of empty homes - a laughable deterrent. What’s an extra £1,416.20 annually on The Bishops Avenue for someone so rich they can afford to let their investment rot?

The scarier underlying truth is that the number of empty homes is growing as quickly as we can design and build them. Some of the best architects in Britain are busy designing the haunted houses of the future. Richard Rogers has spoken of his regret that half the flats of his One Hyde Park are empty or registered as second homes, and the trend is continuing.

This week, the NHBC reported an astronomic 60 per cent rise in new home registrations in London in 2013 - the highest number of new homes in more than 25 years. According to London estate agency Knight Frank, just 27 per cent of new-built homes in central London went to UK buyers last year, with half sold to purchasers from Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Russia.

Shadow housing minister, Emma Reynolds put it this way: ‘It is a scandal that overseas investors are buying London homes as piggy-banks with no intention of living in them.’ Economists are already warning of a London bubble fuelled by foreign investment, which they say risks repeating the 2008 property crash.

So, yes, the government has succeeded in kick-starting home-building. But are these the right homes, for the right people, in the right places? The need for affordable homes for London is cataclysmic - with 80 per cent of new private sector jobs located in the capital, a recent report revealed that one in three young people in the UK aged 22 to 30 leaves their (usually) Northern town for London and never turns back. Where will they live, now that squatting is no longer an option?

Clearly, we need councils to build social housing. But action is not forthcoming - and with whose money? The government has launched an independent social housing review, which will ask whether councils ‘are making sufficient use of their existing powers’ to deliver new buildings - such as financing new housing by selling off high-value vacant properties.

Does this mean compulsory purchase orders on the mansions of Billionaires’ Row or the empty flats of One Hyde Park? Some people are calling for such a course of action - but under Conservative rule it seems unimaginable.

More likely, the government will go for a stalling tactic: all talk, no action. In the meantime, we can expect to see more luxury accommodation come to fruition in the new London - a city of homes without people, and people without homes.


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