London’s Empty Housing: Causes, Existing Policy, Future Solutions and their Enforcement

Duke Lodge in Holland Park, whose 26 rental apartments have stood empty since 2013, when it was bought by the Guernsey-based CPC Group, an offshore company owned by billionaire property developer Christian Candy. In 2016 Kensington and Chelsea council granted planning permission for the demolition of the block and its replacement with 5 interconnected villas of 24 luxury apartments with no affordable housing.

1. Empty Housing

In January of this year the Liberal Democrat Party published data gathered from Freedom of Information requests to 276 councils revealing not only the number of empty dwellings in the UK and how long they have been left empty, but the lack of action by local authorities to bring them back into use during a housing crisis that is causing increased housing poverty and homelessess. Over the past five years only 19 of the 247 councils in England and Wales that responded to the FOI requests have made use of the Empty Dwelling Management Orders that would allow them to take over properties that have been empty for at least 6 months, and only 6 of those councils have done so in the past year. Describing this as a ‘national scandal’, Vince Cable, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for stronger powers for councils to bring empty properties back into use as homes – as he put it – ‘for some of the most vulnerable people in our society’. In March I was interviewed for a documentary on this issue by Designing Buildings Wiki, and this prompted me to research the causes of this national scandal and the failure of existing government policy to cover it up. In response, I have come up with some proposals for solving the problem of empty housing – which is neither a cause nor a symptom of our housing crisis but a product of it – and how those solutions can be enforced in practice through changes to legislation and policy.

The increasingly common sight of empty housing in the middle of a housing crisis is a global phenomenon, blighting the housing stock not only of London and Paris but also of Melbourne and Vancouver. Its causes, therefore, cannot be attributed to the local conditions of that housing crisis – to an excess of production or lack of supply, of having too little space or too few builders investing in either a boom or stagnant housing market. Rather, the phenomenon of large numbers of empty homes is a systemic problem produced by the current moment in world capitalism. Years of laissez-faire government policies and the resulting increase in the monopoly capitalism holds over housing means the production of residential properties in the world’s wealthiest cities is now driven not by their use-value as homes for the citizens of a country, but by their exchange-value as investment opportunities for global capital in search of high-growth commodities in secure markets underwritten by the state. Any government that seeks to bring housing back into use as homes for its electorate, therefore, must do so through housing policy that first loosens and finally breaks global capital’s hold over our nation’s homes, and in its place have the political will to take responsibility for housing the citizens of the nation into its own hands.

Unfortunately, in the UK today neither of the two political parties with expectations of forming a government now or in the near future has either this policy or this will. Indeed, the housing policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties – and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats too – contain only more of the same abrogation of this responsibility to the market that has created the situation where, in England in 2017, 1.16 million households are on housing waiting lists and over 268,000 people are homeless in a country in which hundreds of thousands of homes stand empty at any one time. Data published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (Table 615: vacant dwellings by local authority district: England, from 2004) shows that, of the 23.3 million dwellings in England subject to council tax charges, 590,000, 2.5 per cent of the total, were empty in October 2016, with more than 200,000, 0.86 per cent, empty for more than 6 months, 60,000 empty for more than 2 years, 23,000 for more than 5 years, and over 11,000 for at least 10 years. Extraordinarily, nearly 48,000 of these homes, 8 per cent of all vacant dwellings, are in the social rented sector.

According to analysis by the charity Empty Homes, over 84,000 of the dwellings empty for more than 6 months, 42 per cent of the total, are in council tax band A, the lowest value properties (up to £40,000 based on 1 April 1991 values), with nearly 68,000, 34 per cent, in bands B and C (£40,001 to £52,000 and £52,001 to £68,000). However, the more than 2,000 empty dwellings in band H, the highest value properties (more than £320,000 in 1991), although only 1 per cent of the 200,000 dwellings empty for more than 6 months, represents 1.51 per cent of all dwellings in this council-tax band, the highest percentage of any band, and nearly double the total average of 0.86 per cent. Perhaps surprisingly, the lowest value empty homes represent 1.49 per cent of all properties in band A, the second highest percentage. In comparison, the empty homes in bands B to G constitute between 0.54 and 0.81 per cent of their respective bands. Empty homes, in other words, are proportionately in the highest and lowest value properties in England. Although London, with 19,800 long-term empty homes, has the lowest percentage (0.56 percent) of all the regions, and around half the 39,000 long-term empty homes in the North West (1.2 per cent of all homes in the region), this accords with the reasons why properties are being bought in the capital and by whom, and how this results in them being left empty, with 58,000 London properties (29 per cent of the total) standing empty in a city where 165,000 people are currently homeless.

The Carpenters estate in Stratford, where 90 per cent of the 700 council homes have been gradually emptied since 2004 by Newham council, who have tried to sell the land to various developers, including University College London. In 2014 one of the blocks was occupied for two weeks by the Focus E15 Mothers, who were being threatened with enforced relocation from Newham following the closure of their homeless hostel.

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iMayor: The Ideology of GLA Housing Policy and the New Policy we need on Estate Regeneration

1. Cleaning Up

Recently I watched the film iBoy, which was first released by Netflix in January 2017. Based on the 2010 novel by Kevin Brooks, which is set in the fictional Crow Lane estate in South London, the film relocates the story to the Middlesex Street estate in Aldgate, just off the Petticoat Lane market. A lot of the film takes place on the raised walkways of the outer ring of low-rise blocks that surround the estate’s courtyard and central tower, and which are in turn surrounded by the encroaching monuments to capitalism of the adjacent City, which in the night scenes appear like alien spaceships expanding their intergalactic empire. Much is made visually of this juxtaposition between the dark, run-down, concrete council estate and the glittering metal and glass towers of the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard, and all the other cute names for the priapic emanations of Albion.

I won’t bother you with the story, which is drawn from the increasingly limited range of narrative film; but the basic conceit is that, following a gang shooting on the estate, the young hero has fragments of his iPhone embedded in his brain, and this allow him to access and control digital electronic devices. In their criticisms of the improbability of such a premise and the romantic clichés in which it is played out, what the critics all ignored was the ideological setting to the film, which like all ideology is transparent while at the same time being in plain view. The reason we don’t see it is because it’s so close to our vision as to be indistinguishable from it, like the internalised iPhone screen through which the hero views the world. The Guardian even accused the film of an excess of ‘urban realism’. The clichés no critic saw were those about council estates and the communities they house.

On this one, which is renamed the Crowley estate in the film, the residents are either criminals or victims of crime, their homes dirty, dark and ruled by gangs, the architecture conducive to alienation, despair and ‘anti-social’ behaviour, their community part of a network of organised crime, their mothers crack addicts and whores, their kids dealing or taking drugs, their behaviour only contained by heavily armed police, their proximity to the City of London incongruous and outdated, the existence of the estate futile, doomed and in need – as the heroine says – of ‘cleaning up’. In case the way to do this is in doubt, the file the hero downloads before calling in the riot squad for an early morning raid is titled:

iBoy.net/Crowley_Estate_Clean_Up

Even if you haven’t seen the film, you won’t be surprised to learn that this characteristically middle-class perception of council estate communities – which has itself been formed through thousands of similar depictions in our press, media, news reports, reality TV shows, documentaries, housing policy documents, think-tank reports, developers’ press releases, estate agents’ adverts, councillors’ plans, housing ministers’ speeches and films like this – was written, acted and directed by a team of writers with a tin ear for the speech patterns of London’s working class (‘you think your drug dealing won’t escalate?’), actors whose occasional ‘sorted’ and ‘fuck offs’ couldn’t hide their Home County accents and RADA haircuts, and a director whose filmography is characterised by ‘gritty’ depictions of Inner City life which, unwittingly or otherwise, prepare the way for the plans of property developers and the planning authorities that are in their pockets. That the ‘breeding-ground’ – to use the sink estate terminology – for the criminality that afflicts our society should be located here, in this inner-city council estate, rather than in the financial district it borders, should be sufficient indication of whose interests are being served by this film. Apparently oblivious to the effect it will have on the community it depicts, iBoy would not look out of place in a property developer’s presentation to the City of London Corporation arguing why this ‘sink estate’ should be demolished and the immensely valuable land on which it stands handed over to them for redevelopment.
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Scheming Schemes: A Street View of Gentrification

I’m dreaming dreams, I’m scheming schemes,
I’m building castles high.
They’re born anew, their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.
And as the daylight is dawning,
They come again in the morning!

– Jaan Kenbrovin, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (1918)

There’s been a lot in the papers and on social media lately about West Ham football fans and how much they hate their new ground in the London Stadium. This culminated in the recent pitch invasion and protests during the Hammers’ home defeat to Burnley in March, when hundreds of angry fans demanded the removal of the board that oversaw the club’s move in August 2016 after 108 years at Upton Park. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who last year had to take back management of the stadium after it was revealed that the move has cost the public £300 million – the same cost as rebuilding a football-specific arena from scratch – called these protests ‘disgraceful’. In response, the club has introduced tighter security measures, including bringing the police into the ground, to patrol the space separating fans from the West Ham board on match days. A protest walk from Upton Park to Stratford planned for February was only called off following back room deals between the club’s vice-chairman and selected supporter groups. Despite Newham council spending £40 million on converting the former Olympic stadium through loans it admits it does not expect to see repaid, West Ham season ticket-holders complain about what a wasteland Stratford is, with none of the Pie & Mash shops and cheap pubs they used to visit on match day, and how much the former Olympic stadium, with its running track for athletes, separates them from the football pitch. This alienating distance, echoing that between working-class fans and the millionaire players and board-members, is the perfect image of the gentrification of English football since the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989, the subsequent imposition of all-seater stands that doubled ticket prices overnight, and the forming of the Premier League stockmarket in 1992, and as such part of the wider marketisation of every aspect of our lives that is socially cleansing the working class from our inner cities.

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Maintain, Refurbish, Invest: Siemensstadt Housing Estate, Berlin

Constructed between 1929 and 1931 to house the 60,000 workers employed in the Siemens factory, the Siemansstadt housing estate is located in the Berlin suburbs of Spandau and Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Working to the masterplan by Hans Scharoun, a number of the world’s most innovative architects of the time, including Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, Hugo Häring and Paul Henning, came together in a collaborative project that produced a highly successful and varied set of buildings and communal spaces. Unlike the nearby Hansaviertel, built between 1957-61 as a show-case of Western modernism with little or no social ambitions, the Siemansstadt estate was designed as a not-for-profit working community, and still thrives as one today.

One of six modernist housing estates located around Berlin that are recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, the residential neighbourhood accommodates a number of commercial and communal facilities, including restaurants, shops and laundrettes in the ground floors of the blocks, as well as the seemingly effortlessly simple but beautiful landscaping and trees by Lerberecht Migge.

The estate represents a turning point in urban thinking – from low-rise garden city projects with individual gardens, to high-density and more communal and collective forms of living. The collaborative nature of the design team resulted in a masterplan that gave equal importance to the spaces between the buildings as to the buildings themselves. Although clearly revolutionary, the buildings were designed in the service of the residents, and not competitively jostling for attention in their desire for novelty – like the Hansaviertel estate and so much of contemporary architecture.

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Narkomfin: Regenerations, Appropriations, Betrayals

Narkomfin building, 1930.

The Narkomfin Building

As a third-rate intellectual nation with the most de-politicised working class in Europe, the UK has spent this 100th anniversary year self-satisfyingly dumping on everything we can about the Russian Revolution, while simultaneously shutting our eyes to the extraordinary creativity to which it gave birth – however short-lived – in poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music, theatre, textiles, graphic design, photography, photomontage, cinema and architecture, and to which only the Italian Renaissance can be compared in modern times. Writing about Le Corbusier’s famous Marseilles Housing Unit recently led me to a building which – being neither an architect nor a scholar of architecture – I’d never heard of: the apartment block for the People’s Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) in Moscow designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg and his student Ignatii Milinis. Le Corbusier took some of his most influential ideas from this building, having first drained them of much of their socialist content; but while the 1952 Marseilles Housing Unit is celebrated in hundreds of books and visited by thousands of architectural students every year, the Narkomfin building, which was completed in 1930 when most British workers were living in terraced Victorian slums, has been left to rot, squatted by Moscow’s homeless, bought up by a property speculator, and now under threat of being ‘regenerated’ as luxury apartments or a hotel in Vladimir Putin’s Brave New Russia.

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Armed Love: Capitalism, Anarchism and the Russian Revolution

‘The revenge of history is more powerful than the revenge of the most powerful General Secretary.’

– Leon Trotsky

How do you mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in which monopoly capitalism has created the greatest income inequality in Europe, and which, because of this, the spectre of socialism – if not quite communism – is haunting for the first time in forty years? In accordance with the role art and culture has been assigned under late capitalism, the UK state’s primary response has been to put on exhibitions and performances at its major institutions of culture that – much like frescoes in pre-Reformation churches – explain the perils of revolution to the historically illiterate middle classes. To this end, 2017 has seen shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Design Museum, the British Library, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern – and that’s just in London alone. And as we entered October and the anniversary of the terrible ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ approached, a series of documentaries and dramas appeared on our primary instrument of state propaganda, the British Broadcasting Corporation, of which a special mention should go to the hilarious Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution, which dragged out every right-wing talking head the establishment could produce to carry out character assassinations of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But amid this state-sanctioned programme of political enlightenment for the masses, there have been other, independent responses to the Russian Revolution, ones that focus not on its art or demonising its protagonists, but on the historical lessons it contains for those looking for something more than the propaganda of an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism, repressive civil state and morally bankrupt parliament.

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Radiant City: The Marseilles Housing Unit

In April of this year ASH visited the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles, the first and most influential of Le Corbusier’s Housing Units’, which was completed in 1952 and repeated, with variations, in Nantes-Rezé (1955), in Berlin-Westend (1957), in Briey (1963) and in Firminy (1965). Itself considerably influenced by the Narkomfin building in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg, Le Corbussier’s model of public housing had a huge influence on Brutalist architecture, and inspired the design of a large number of housing estates in the UK, including – to name just a few – the Park Hill estate (1961) in Sheffield, the Alton estate (1958), the Samuda estate (1965), Balfron Tower (1967), Trellick Tower (1972), Robin Hood Gardens (1972) and the Barbican estate (1981), all of which are in London. Ironically, the reinforced, rough-finished concrete (béton brut) from which the Housing Unit was constructed, and which gave its name to this movement in architecture, was necessitated because the steel frame Le Corbusier had envisaged using proved too expensive under the shortage of steel in post-war France.

In his early theoretical work, Vers une architecture (1923), Le Corbusier paid particular attention to the forms of ocean liners, finding in their matching of form to function the purism in design he sought to bring to modern architecture. As the plan of the Marseilles Housing Unit conveys, Le Corbusier envisaged this long, narrow building of 17 decks running parallel to the Mediterranean coastline as a sort of stationary ship, and many of its interior details make reference to nautical design. The wood and brass materials on the folding seat cum threshold to the apartment balconies recall those of a ship’s cabin, as does the wooden decking of the floors, the stairs, and the spiral staircase in the restaurant. And the extraordinary roof, which resembles a landscape by René Magritte, has ventilator shafts shaped like a ship’s smokestacks and a communal hall that looks like an upturned lifeboat. Above all, the self-sufficiency of the building – which originally had its own guest hostel, laundry, restaurant, grocer, butcher, barber, post office, clinic, nursery, kindergarten, gymnasium, children’s swimming pool, exercise space and running track – imitated the facilities within an ocean liner.

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