Calls to requisition luxury flats for Grenfell survivors

The fire at Grenfell House in Kensington and Chelsea has brought empty homes into the headlines, following Jeremy Corbyn’s  call for  unoccupied luxury flats in the borough to be requisitioned to ensure that survivors of the disaster can be housed locally.

When launching his proposal on 15th June, Corbyn explicitly situated it in the context of the supposed buy-to-leave phenomenon (which Corbyn inaccurately referred to as ‘land-banking’). He was reported to have said:

It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live. We have to address these issues.[1]

The proposal was widely reported in the press and Corbyn repeated his proposal on Sunday in an ITV interview with Robert Peston,[2] which has also received wide coverage. In this case he dropped in the idea of simply ‘occupying’ the empty homes, which was interpreted by some as a call for direct action a la Occupy movement, bringing predictable howls of outrage about Marxism and the end of civilization as we know it..[3]

A yougov poll in the wake of Corbyn’s comments showed 59% of respondent expressing some support for his proposal, with 28% opposed. Even amongst Conservative voters,  the idea of requisitions received 40% approval. Again, the survey was couched in terms of ‘luxury flats’ rather than housing generally.[4]

Both Corbyn and close associates, such as John McDonnell,[5] have seemed to assume that there are legal mechanisms for ‘requisitioning’ the flats which are appropriate to current circumstances, when clearly there are not.  Only the BBC seems so far to have examined the position under current legislation in any detail, rightly concluding that cost and time would militate against using current mechanisms.[6]

The BBC investigation did not, however, consider the relative ease with which the Empty Dwelling Management Order regime could be changed via a statutory instrument.  For example, the three-month notice period (not mentioned by the BBC) was introduced by Eric Pickles using a Statutory Instrument, as was the stipulation that the home be empty for two years rather than the six months specified in the original primary legislation. These provisions could be changed. The BBC’s comment that the legislation is aimed at homes that are a nuisance is also incorrect, even following the changes introduced by Eric Pickles: there are no such criteria, only a procedural requirement that evidence about nuisance and community support be presented to the Tribunal considering the case.

It would be possible to demonstrate that the original intention of the legislation was simply to provide a route to bring back into use any homes that had been empty for over 6 months in order to meet housing need and Pickles’ attempts to narrow the application of the legislation could not over-ride the wish of Parliament should anyone wish to reverse his approach. 

John McDonnell suggested that emergency legislation could be rushed through Parliament but the introduction of new primary legislation, with the development of appropriate criteria, of robust processes for evaluating the evidence to demonstrate that the criteria were met and the need for appropriate safeguards such as appeal processes would seem to make such a move more of a political gesture than an effective response to the immediate needs of those affected by the fire.  Changes to the EDMO procedures, on the other hand, would allow a medium-term response, if adequately guided by the  adage ‘act in haste, repent at leisure'. It is debatable, however, if such changes could really bring luxury flats into the frame at an affordable cost.

Meanwhile, the government has committed to rehousing all the survivors in the borough or neighbouring boroughs, though it is not clear how, or what rehousing would be temporary and what might be permanent. Alternatives do exist, for example:

  • To contact all owners of second homes and empty homes in the borough inviting them to make their home available to survivors of the disaster. In the current spirit of national unity and ‘all being in this together’, which we understand prevails, this should produce a positive response; it is certainly capable of producing an immediate contribution, unlike many other solutions.
  • To rehouse survivors in adequate-quality, temporary, prefabricated housing units on some part of the green space within the borough.

Both of these initiatives could, and arguably should, have got underway immediately. For example, Kensington and Chelsea’s Council Tax department would have contact details for all those liable for council tax  on second and empty homes  so the task of contacting them would be a trivial one. (It is not being assumed here that voluntary offers would be sufficient on their own - only that they might make a worthwhile contribution. If not, we would have a clearer idea of what being in it all together actually  means in practice.)

The Grenfell fire is a terrible human tragedy which throws into relief many important issues. Some are immediately relevant to the fire itself, such as fire safety standards. Others are more structural or strategic. To name  but a few they include the provision and availability of genuinely affordable housing; what happens when people become homeless as they do week in week out across the country; gentrification and the destruction of communities; inequalities of wealth and poverty.  

In this landscape, the issue of empty homes resonates largely through the symbolism of vacant luxury flats, with a perhaps unhealthy emphasis on those that are foreign-owned.  However heart-felt the concerns, in practical terms for most communities around Britain – and for most empty homes practitioners –  these are simply non-issues. If anything positive is to come out of the current attention on empties, let it be a systematic, sustainable, well-thought-out, nationwide approach to making best use of our empty property for housing and avoiding the blight that empties can cause, rather than focusing on the niche micro-issue of foreign buy-to-leave in London’s luxury market.[7] And right now, let’s not try to hitch such a bigger vision to any bandwagon associated with the catastrophe at Grenfell.  

 

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/15/jeremy-corbyn-empty-homes-owned-rich-should-requisitioned-grenfell/ 16th June 207.

[2] http://www.itv.com/news/2017-06-18/jeremy-corbyn-renews-calls-to-seize-empty-homes-for-grenfell-tower-victims/

[3] See comments against the Telegraph news story at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/18/jeremy-corbyn-calls-supporters-occupy-empty-homes-help-victims/

[4] https://yougov.co.uk/opi/surveys/results#/survey/c9858cf0-527a-11e7-86f0-4e52bfafa255/question/f7a01240-527a-11e7-bfce-be36d6dc7ab1/toplines

[5] e.g. in his Sky News interview  with Sophie Ridge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryqx6GP8S6w

[6] See http://www.ehnetwork.org.uk/around-web/reality-check-can-government-requisition-homes-bbc .

[7] For the most recent Empty Homes Network policy document see http://www.ehnetwork.org.uk/filling-empties-ehn-policy-position

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Comments

Thanks David, a very interesting article.

Just to add a few links that could also contribute to the debate

The BBC Reality Check page (link above)  includes a link to another article on the research from the London School of Economics that “recently found "almost no evidence of units being left entirely empty - certainly less than 1%", but that "for those units bought as second homes, occupancy could be as little as a few weeks a year".

However, we cannot overlook the fact that legislation already exists, under Section 22 (2 & 3) of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, for the requisition of property (with or without compensation) to deal with an emergency. An emergency, as defined in section 1 of the act, is an event or situation that threatens damage to human welfare only if it involves, causes or may cause loss of human life, human illness or injury, homelessness or damage to property etc.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/36/introduction

This all-encompassing piece of legislation seems to have slipped in under the radar and I was only alerted to it by a novel I read a couple of years ago.

Scary stuff.

Interesting and yes, somewhat scary. These powers could be used at any moment to stop me weeding the containers on my balcony.

I think attempting to use these emergency powers to 'seize' private dwellings in the circumstances of Grenfell would be considered disproportionate by most people - and perhaps of more direct and immediate relevance by the courts and Parliament - notwithstanding the yougov survey. 

However, the precise consitutional barriers to them being employed are not clear to me. I note that the emergency powers cannot over-ride the Human Rights Act (23.5(b)) and should not over-ride Convention Rights (20(5)(b)(iv)) and the courts are implied to continue with their role (22(5)). So some checks and balances can be assumed to remain. 

.o.

Thanks for the reference to the LSE research. I had meant to mention it, as the metropolitan obsession with foreign ownership of luxury flats in central London is one of my little bees in the bonnet that produce the occasional sarcastic tirade e.g. http://www.ehnetwork.org.uk/around-web/warning-possible-outbreak-sanity-regarding-london-buy-leave-phenomenon

Firstly, David Gibbens that is an amazingly succinct written response to this recent tragedy.

David Gibbens to be the next Housing Minister?

I am currently processing my own thoughts and responses to the Grenfell fire into various categories. All represent my personal and professional views based on 42 years of commissioning and managing renovation and maintenance works for social housing as well as responding in a professional capacity to large-scale emergencies.

1. The human tragedy for which I cannot discuss without floods of tears.

2. The technical reasons for the rapid fire spread - (only the obvious ones here). The materials - aluminium sheeting coated in polyethylene and insulation that when heated emits toxic fumes. The construction detailing allowing voids through which the fire can spread rapidly. A hot summer's night - no doubt many windows and doors propped open further encouraging the fire spread. http://www.thefpa.co.uk/about/news/news_detail.cfpa-i-statement-to-grenfell-tower-fire.html

3. The revalent legislation leading up to the event. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 putting the onus on the client / building owner to manage the fire risk. Building Regulations Part B's long overdue revision. Any recommendations from the Lakanal enquiry being actioned or not? 

4. A shift towards hands off / arm’s length property management with a lessened emphasis on the requisite technical skills. A reduction in in-house Professional & Technical personnel; Architects, Surveyors, Engineers and Clerk of Works who would normally have the interests of the clients (Councils, RPs and tenants) foremost as well as ensuring control of build quality and control of contractors.

https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/jun/17/architects-grenfell-tower-fire-was-an-avoidable-tragedy

5. The respective emergency services, government's and authorities' varying responses to meeting the needs of the victims.   

6. The social and political context of providing housing for rich and poor.

I am a long way off having all the answers.

If we as Empty Homes Practitioners can do anything to improve the situation - now is the time.