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Appropriating Empty Property to House the Homeless

The Society of Labour Lawyers’ Housing Sub-Group hosted a well-attended round-table discussion on Wednesday 11th October,  chaired by Liz Davies, discussing the practical, political and legal routes to putting empty homes to good use.

First, we heard from John Hobson QC of Landmark Chambers, who provided us with a legal background and a workable and exciting proposal. We then congratulated the newly elected Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea, Emma Dent-Coad, and learnt more about the practical effect of vacant property in her constituency. Labour’s council leader in Kensington & Chelsea, Robert Atkinson, expressed his support and enthusiasm for change in the borough.

We have a chronic shortage of homes. The cause of this problem could be traced back to the ‘right to buy’ and the treasury’s stranglehold on local authorities’ funding: which restricts them from building replacement council housing when needed. There is no realistic right to buy in Kensington & Chelsea, according to Emma Dent-Coad, and Robert Atkinson could not dispute that council funds are emaciated.

Yet there seems to be an abundance of empty, available property. Dent-Coad presented evidence that newly-built flats in Chelsea are being deliberately kept off the market to keep prices high. Why can’t these empty properties be brought into public use - especially in times of catastrophe (for example the Grenfell tower fire)?

 The rights of owners are expressed in Article 1 Protocol 1 of the ECHR: which guarantee every natural or legal person ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their property. However, even this right is qualified: that no one should be deprived their property ‘except in the public interest’.

Hobson laid out case-law to conclude that before we begin housing the homeless in empty tower-blocks we would need: 1) express statutory authority; and 2) to provide fair compensation.

A possible mechanism already in existence would be to enforce individual compulsory purchase orders (CPOs). These are eventually effective, but are cumbersome - often giving rise to lengthy Court battles and requiring the payment of uplifted compensation – so should be seen as a last resort and unsuitable in times of emergency. 

Hobson’s twin suggestions are as follows:

Firstly, he proposes a register of vacant property. Section 151 of the Housing & Planning Act 2016 is intended to allow local authorities to create a register of brown-field land. There seems to be no reason this couldn’t be extended to register empty homes. Emma Dent-Coad spoke about photographing Chelsea’s ‘dark buildings’ and suggested she had already begun compiling such a list for the council.   

Secondly, local authorities should be empowered to take possession of land on the register. Hobson identified another new piece of legislation that could be used: the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Section 17 enables local authorities to take possession of land with a CPO. However, this Act would require formal amendments to the procedure for purchasing properties on the vacant property register. Firstly, he would remove the requirement for 3 month’s notice or shorten this period; secondly, he would remove the potentially obstructive counter-notice procedure; and thirdly he would award compensation only for loss of use of vacant property specifically, not uplifted compensation for loss of occupation.

If these changes were enacted, by a Labour government or under public pressure, local authorities would have a real opportunity to use empty homes without facing the expense and delay of a compulsory purchase order. Furthermore, we would expect this to have a positive effect on the housing market, as owners might rather rent out or sell their property at an equitable and less artificial price than face the risk of compulsory purchase.

We finished with a round-table discussion. Former Grenfell resident Thomasina Hessel explained her frustration at the need for a formal legislative process. It was suggested that a campaigning group could lobby for a private member’s bill on the topic. Dent-Coad pointed out that in Singapore you cannot buy a new home unless you want to live there. SLL member Joel Ainsworth asked why similar legislation could not be enforced here and if, in any case, a non-EU buyer would have standing to take their case to the ECHR? Hobson queried whether in any case we treat A1P1 ECHR too cautiously: it does include an exception for public policy, so it might stretch more than expected. Other alternative suggestions were a relaxation on squatting laws, requiring a resident beneficial owner when registering land at the land registry, and a copy of St Ives’s ban on new-build second homes (recently approved by the High Court).

SLL thanks Liz Davies, chair of the Housing group, and Garden Court Chambers for hosting this event. If you wish to get involved in SLL groups, please contact me on administrator@societyoflabourlawyers.org.uk

 Oliver Kavanagh 

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