Published: 3 March 2023
Westminster City Council has launched a crack down on empty homes in the capital and vowed to free up more property for private rent and affordable homes.
The council has published a new strategy introducing a range of measures, focused on properties vacant for more than 6 months, which will encourage owners to make empty space available for rent while discouraging the purchase of holiday homes or ‘buy to leave’ investment.
Between 2021 and 2022, the number of homes on the authority’s council tax database declared as long term empty residential properties (LTEP) rose by 123% to 1,150 properties. The real number is expected to be higher, due to the previous reliance on self-reporting.
The same data shows that more affluent wards, such as Knightsbridge and Belgravia, have the highest number of empty properties. Research conducted by the GLA suggests that LTEP in London are complicated by interrelated issues of second homes and potential Buy to Leave investments.
However, the issue remains unclear, and part of the strategy will see Westminster introduce an empty property officer to help fully unpick why so many homes in prime locations have been left vacant in recent years.
The new approach will see aims to bring homes back into use increase housing supply, especially in the private rented sector, and to improve knowledge of LTEP and how to tackle them, through an alliance of stakeholders. Where there are opportunities for empty homes to be used for temporary accommodation or affordable housing we will look to take them.
Current local authority powers to tackle the issues are limited and restrictive. This encompasses Council Tax Premiums, Compulsory Purchase orders (CPOs), Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), improvement of empty properties, planning powers and grants.
In the coming months, supported by the new empty homes officer, the council intends to:
- set up a hot line for residents to report empty homes
- engage with owners of empty homes on the council website, highlighting the benefits of bringing their properties back into use and setting out the council’s role
- invest council time in identifying further empty properties across the city
- hold a workshop with partners and stakeholders to create a fuller understanding of the issue in the city
- lobby government for greater powers to bring empty homes back into use
- make the links with the upcoming Westminster Against Dirty Money Strategy
Adam Hug, Leader of Westminster City Council, said:
In some respects, having some of the country’s most desirable postcodes is a good problem to have. It’s great that people from across the world invest in our city but the rise in vacant homes is alarming and we know the current figures are likely to underestimate the problem.
For many the thought of so many homes in Westminster sitting empty, essentially left to rot, while thousands wait for housing, will be hard to swallow.
These measures are an important first step in tackling the issue of empty houses in Westminster, where absentee international investment can hollow out our communities and waste a vital supply of homes.
Our current powers are blunt instruments. We need to gain a better understanding of the problem and make it desirable to rent vacant property while penalising those who leave much needed homes empty.
For further information, the Long-Term Empty Residential Properties (Private Sector) Interim Strategy Statement can be accessed here.