Labour are deeply concerned by new figures provided by Westminster Council that show the authority has only identified 155 long-term empty properties in Westminster.
At present the council is claiming that Westminster has four times fewer empty homes than its smaller neighbour Kensington and Chelsea, whose empty homes team have recently identified 621 homes left unused for more than 2 years. This is despite the clear similarities in the two council’s residential areas, both with an abnormally high mix of high-end (Prime/Super Prime) properties and more deprived areas.
Westminster Council has not had an Empty Property Officer since 2010, since then relying only on Council Tax records. In April this year the council finally introduced the Empty Homes Premium (a small surcharge on Council Tax), many years after other authorities, but has yet to see an increase in the self-reporting of homes previously left empty (who had no previous pressure to inform the council that homes were empty).
While the twin trends of under-occupation (including holiday homes for the global super-rich) and ‘Airbnb’ style short-lets leave many areas empty for long-periods of time, they do not explain the disparity between the views of Westminster residents and the currently recorded numbers on this issue, particularly in the context of the data that K&C have collected.
There are specific local issues around the use of the highest end of the Westminster (and K&C) housing market as a piggy bank for the offshore shell companies of the worlds’ oligarchs, where upcoming measures on financial transparency may lead to new opportunities to help tackle the problem.
There are also related challenges in the commercial property market around how empty commercial properties and the space above shops can be more effectively used to provide housing for local people. Labour believes empty commercial property should form part of a coherent Empty Homes Strategy for Westminster.
Labour would like to see the introduction of at least one dedicated empty homes officer and for all of the council’s street based teams and enforcement officers working together to help assess the true scale of the issue in Westminster.
Westminster Labour Leader Cllr Adam Hug said “It is vital that Westminster gets a grip of the empty properties problem in Westminster. It must pro-actively assess the problem using information from local residents and the Council’s boots on the ground. Westminster must effectively use existing resources to bring empty properties into use and work with Kensington and other boroughs to pressure the government for greater powers to act.”