Is Property Requisition the Answer?
In the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy, are the Leader of the Opposition’s comments on requisition and occupation of empty private properties in any way the answer?
Article by Charles Fraser-Sampson Photograph by Evelyn Paris
The events surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire this past month has seen all manner of issues come to the forefront. Although just a matter of weeks on and with the promise of a Public Enquiry on the way, there has already been plenty of political ramifications at a national and local level.
In the immediate aftermath, one of the big questions being asked was “How are we going to re-house all the displaced, surviving residents in a city where available housing is in such short supply?” The voice of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was quick to suggest requisitioning properties in the local area that were not primary residences for their owners and, in some cases, empty and never used. This suggestion was hailed in some quarters as welcome forward thinking, whilst visibly appalling others. For Corbyn this was not a throw away sound bite because he re-affirmed this subject just a matter of days after. Corbyn described the long established model of investing and holding property for financial security and future gain as “Land Banking.” He didn’t hold back in his disdain for the practice and went as far to suggest that those made homeless by the fire should be able to seize and occupy empty homes within the borough. This borough being The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, means that if this really were to be exercised, then residents would be occupying some of the world’s most sought-after and thus expensive property. When questioned if he was suggesting seizing these properties for the long-term or just as long as needed, he responded, “Occupy, compulsory purchase it, requisition it, there’s lots of things you can do.” This then begs the question, is this at all possible under current legislation and if so, how, practically, would it work?
If we look at requisition firstly, this has been done in the past, but only in time of war. During each of the World Wars, new Acts of power were granted by Parliament to requisition certain buildings and homes; in essence for the ‘war effort’ at a time of emergency and national need. Great stately homes were an obvious choice, given their size, the land which they occupied and generally, remote locations away from likely bombing targets. Importantly however, they were returned to their owners at the end of the war when the national need had passed. To requisition so-called “empty properties” now, not in a time of war and mass-national need, would require new legislation, which would prove highly controversial and thus be difficult to pass in Parliament.
The second possible option of compulsory purchase, does exist and is often used in the case of great infrastructure projects such as Heathrow’s third runway expansion or Crossrail, where a property must be vacated to make way. However, it’s a time consuming process and really only a last result if all other negotiations have failed with the owner. It’s certainly not cheap either as often an above market rate has to be paid as a form of compensation.
Whilst Corbyn’s message may strike the right note with a number of supporters, it would appear that, in reality, his proposals are not feasible given current legislation on offer. A number of people would perhaps urge caution here, because of three points. (1) What actually constitutes an “empty home,” because recent research has suggested that less than 1 per cent of all London property is actually completely un-used / un-occupied for the whole year? If we were suggesting occupying properties where occupation is only for the matter of a few weeks a year, then this would be tantamount to the French and Spanish government seizing thousands of British owned holiday homes. (2) Mr Corbyn often defines his vision for the country as one whereby the wealthy pay more. Nobody is doubting for a minute that you don’t have to be extremely wealthy to own a property in an affluent neighbourhood like Kensington & Chelsea, especially one that isn’t your main residence. However, he might do well to remember that all this wealthy tax income will soon start to diminish if the top percentage earners in the UK and particularly, wealthy international owners start to feel that what they consider to be a safe and stable investment in central London bricks and mortar, is suddenly no longer safe from the clutches and whims of a British government. After all, these owners pay billions of pounds into the Treasury’s funds each year in the form of stamp duty alone, of which they already pay an additional 3 per cent levy to reflect the fact it’s a second home. (3) The current legislation does not support such a pledge. Requisitioning is the only viable short-term option to rehouse Grenfell Tower residents and this has only typically happened in time of war. The Requisitioned Housing Act (1955) put pay to this, removing the power of Local Authorities to be able to do this. During the Blitz in the Second World War, a great number of bombed out families needed re-housing and authorities simply requisitioned readily deserted properties. The large-scale problem hit home after the war when the original owners returned and started demanding their property back. A compulsory purchase order (CPO) is too time consuming and costly, so doesn’t represent a quick solution for Grenfell Tower. To simply occupy is tantamount to squatting and would more than likely lead to all out social and criminal chaos, so doesn’t really bear thinking about. There is no current legislation that can force an owner to rent out their property and in this day and age, whereby potential tenants have to meet so many criteria before being accepted by a landlord, who will be on hand to guarantee these Grenfell Tower tenants? More to the point, whom will ensure that these, expensive Kensington properties they rent are properly maintained and that they’ll willingly vacate at the end of their tenancy even if they don’t have a new, more permanent home ready to move into? Quite simply, there are too many factors to overcome here and like so many things in life, there is no simple fix.
I suppose it’s only human nature to aspire to want what others have, but the Grenfell tragedy is just that, ‘a tragedy.’ It didn’t happen because of class and local, financially better-off neighbours owning more than one property and thus restricting local authority tenants to these sites. More than likely, it happened, as many already assess, because of outdated towers being used for mass social housing, poor fire safety controls and a desire at a local and possibly even a national level, to keep things on the cheap. It did wholly effect a certain demographic of society, people who perhaps need more help than others. There is already mass social division as a result of the fire and the perceived lack of local government help and support which followed. Surely to begin dragging private property owners into the mix is only going to sow more tension and division as this tragedy turns into a ‘class war’? Kensington & Chelsea are the landlord and in turn they can involve the government at a time of crisis such as this to produce a suitable response. The buck stops with them to provide a solution and put things right, not those with a private property to spare.