Kensington & Chelsea under the spotlight during Empty Homes Week

As sanction-weary Russian oligarchs sell-off their London properties, Empty Homes Week 2022 highlighted what good could be done with Kensington & Chelsea’s vacant housing stock.

Action on Empty Homes, an organisation campaigning for empty houses to be brought back into use for those in need or priced-out, claims nearly one in eight homes in Kensington & Chelsea sit unoccupied.

The appeal of properties in London – high value, highly secure investments governed by compliant British ownership disclosure laws – has enticed so many Russian billionaires as to spawn the nickname ‘Londongrad’.

Action on Empty Homes director Will McMahon said: “We are pleased that the Government has finally put beneficial ownership of UK properties high on its agenda.

“It is a shame it took a major European war to get some action taken. 

“Action on Empty Homes has long argued that a register of beneficial owners and landlords, whether British, Russian or from anywhere else, will help hugely in tackling the country’s empty homes crisis.” 

Speaking to LBC Radio on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab voiced support for seizing the properties of Russian oligarchs if there were legal grounds to do so, and backed a suggestion to use the buildings to house Ukrainian refugees.

Moreover, in a 28 February statement to the Commons, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced the government’s intention to create a ‘Register of Overseas Entities’ that will mandate foreign owners reveal their identity.

Kwarteng said: “By legislating now, we will send a clear warning to those who have, or who are thinking about using the UK property market to launder ill-gotten gains – particularly those linked to the Putin regime.”

In February, anti-corruption group Transparency International revealed £1.5 billion worth of property was purchased by Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin in the UK since 2016.

Of this, £283million, or almost 20%, was linked to addresses in Kensington & Chelsea alone.

Transparency International UK’s Director of Policy Duncan Hames said: “Government plans to force overseas companies holding property here to reveal their owners are long overdue.

“Until the law is changed to do this, even those targeted by sanctions will continue to be able to hide their wealth here.”

Back in 2020, Action on Empty Homes published ‘Pretty Vacant’, a report warning of the emerging trend of ‘financialisation’.

The term was coined to describe the use of housing as an investible asset and a means of accumulating wealth, rather than as a human right or public utility.

According to the report, ‘financialisation’ has exacerbated all three elements of the national housing crisis: supply shortfalls, greatly reduced affordability and housing stock that is among the poorest quality in the developed world.

One of Action on Empty Homes’s most notable initiatives is Empty Homes Week, which ran this year from 28 February to 6 March.

The week promoted participating councils’ actions on restoring wasted homes to use, provided an opportunity to publicise information and assistance for owners of empty homes, and offered residents advice on how to report vacant properties in their neighbourhood.

Chris Bailey, National Campaigns Manager for Action on Empty Homes, hailed the efforts of the hundreds of councils across the country that participated this year.

Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland and the upcoming Butler to the World, is an investigative journalist leading the charge against dirty money in the capital.

He said: “I don’t think Russian oligarchs leaving will make that much difference in the long-term sadly, simply because there aren’t very many.

“We’re only talking about a few hundred properties. Sadly, it’s no substitute for a rational joined-up social housing policy.”

According to last year’s Council Taxbase report, just over 10% of the houses in Kensington & Chelsea were not in primary residential use, the highest vacancy rate in London outside of the City.

In light of Empty Homes Week, councillor Kim Taylor-Smith, Deputy Leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council, said: “The lack of affordable housing is a London-wide problem and we feel it especially keenly in our expensive, small and densely packed borough.

“We are building 600 new homes, 300 at social rents, but the need for homes for more people, will continue to grow.

“We stand ready to support refugees from Ukraine, as we have done with Afghan evacuees in the last year.

“We want to reduce the number of empty properties, which is a complex issue, and we’re exploring how we can address it, including raising the council tax rate on those properties.

“Changes in government guidance would help us to make use of vacant properties for people on housing waiting lists but landlords and owners can help now, working with us directly to bring their properties back into use.”

You can read more about the actions taken to help Ukrainian refugees across London here.

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