Taken from the May 2014 issue of Housebuilder magazine.
One of the many fabulous things about getting divorced a few years ago was my transition from a Victorian terraced house to a newly built two-bedroom apartment, courtesy of St George. No more draughty sash windows, no more narrow staircases and no more creaky floorboards. I embraced apartment living with the enthusiasm of a sixteen year old discovering girls.
But one of the curious things about London flats is that when it gets dark, there are a surprising number of apartments where the lights don’t ever come on. Are these people working night shift? Is some curious form of power rationing going on? Or are these homes simply sitting empty?
The fact that there are seemingly lots of sold, but empty, new properties is being noticed by the chattering, and worse still the planning, classes. Grenville Turner, Chief Executive of Countrywide, was quizzed on this point on Radio 4’s Today Programme recently and batted away calls that a tax be imposed with the entirely sensible argument that if you tax overseas buyers punitively then you will turn off a tap of investors providing the private sector rental properties we need.
It is interesting to see that Islington Council is treating empty homes as a problem to be dealt with through planning policy. Islington is consulting on revisions to its planning obligations policy and proposing that section 106 agreements on major residential schemes include a contribution for affordable housing elsewhere in the Borough “if new residential developments in Islington are being purchased by investors who leave dwellings empty”.
Quite why an investor would buy an apartment and then sacrifice rental income by leaving it empty is beyond me. Even if the people who do this are foreign investors (are they?) trying to discourage them from spending their money in this country by applying additional taxes would seem self-defeating. And penalising house builders from selling their product to the ‘wrong’ type of buyer, as Islington is proposing, is completely unworkable. There are so many reasons why this policy is bonkers that I may well struggle to stay within my allotted 400 words but, how do you police it? What about resales? And surely the authority is already getting its pound of social housing flesh.
I fear that if this is a genuine problem – and casual observations out of my sitting room window surely do not constitute evidence – then it is a problem without an easy solution.