Empty properties made the headlines on Saturday with a Guardian newspaper front-page story about empty mansions on "billionaires row" (Bishop's Avenue in Barnet, London). The impact of the story was sufficient for a response from Communities Minister Stephen Williams MP to be posted on the DCLG website (although the response does not refer to any specific aspect of the story in question and looks a little sad standing on its own).
The on-line version of the Guardian story features compelling video footage shot inside one of the mansions that is said to have been bought on behalf of members of the Saudi royal family. They are said to have been acquired twenty or more years ago as potential bolt-holes around the time of the first Iraq war when Saddam Hussain invaded Saudi Arabia's neighbour Kuwait. The several Saudi-owned mansions were apparently left to rot but have since been sold on to developers for a reported £73million, a price that seems quite low given that one mansion on the street is currently for sale for £65million (reduced from £100million!).
The story attracted numerous online comments. Few were sympathetic to the owners of the empty homes but not many proposed realistic solutions. Somehow the story was tied in with Boris Johnson's widely-reported view that councils in London should impose the 50% Empty Homes Premium and that "multiples of that" might be desirable in some cases. But with the maximum council tax no more than double that on a Band "D" home, it would require a completely different scale of taxation of make any impact in cases such as those in Bishop's Avenue: the Empty Homes Premium would probably amount to the same as cleaning the pigeon droppings off the crystal chandelier.
The spectrum of opinion reported in today's follow-up story in the Guardian ranged from the Leader of Barnet Council's fatalistic response:
"The Bishops Avenue is in its own little bubble and frankly has little connection with the rest of Barnet. I would rather spend public money bringing family houses back into use than get involved in battles with the lawyers of billionaires."
to David Ireland's call for intervention by the local authority:
"I call on the local authority to use empty property management orders or enforced sale of these properties. If they showed they were willing to do that it would force other owners to take action."
Form the follow-up story, it seems that Labour is trying to make political capital out of the story, although the homes said to have been owned by Saudis had already been empty several years when Labour came to power 1997 and by all accounts remained so for the duration of the Labour administration. Labour calls for controls on foreign buy-to-leave reflect the views of right-wing think tank Civitas, in their report published today called Finding Shelter (also analysed in the Guardian here).
Empty Homes Network members are invited to log in and achieve fifteen minutes of fame by posting their own views - as comments against this story - in response to the following questions
a) what realistically might Barnet council do - if anything - within the current legislaitve framework about these empty mansions?
b) what sorts of legislation could be introduced that might, realistically, prevent such situations arising in future?
There is no assumption here that satisfying solutions do exist within the current framework and practitioners are entitled to say so.
Our post-of-the-month award has been in abeyance for a while but this looks like a good opportunity to reinstate it.