'Missing' Voters Highlight Flats Standing Empty

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 34 months ago
'Missing' Voters Highlight Flats Standing Empty

1 Lamb's Passage; image taken from Google Streetview

There's new evidence of the "buy to leave" phenomenon in London: of investors buying homes and not even renting them out, just letting them stand empty, helping exacerbate the housing crisis.

There have been grumblings around buy to leave for a while, with One Hyde Park being a prime example. But it's generally been dismissed as a minor issue — certainly, at a housing conference we attended last week, it came up but was shrugged off by the panel as a distraction. However, some figures from Islington and Westminster show it's something we may have to take more seriously.

New data via the Labour group on Westminster council reveals over 10,000 voters have dropped off the electoral register in the last year. This could indicate problems with the new electoral registration system (since June 2014, voters need to register themselves individually rather than have the head of the household fill in the form for everyone) or that people aren't actually living in the properties they own. But since voters won't start to be removed from the register until after the 2015 general election, and the biggest fall in voters are in wealthy areas (i.e. less likely to have educational issues around understanding the new system, or keen to hide from the authorities) we think it's probable that we're finally seeing evidence of empty homes.

Over the course of the last year, Knightsbridge and Belgravia ward has lost 1,385 voters — that's a decline of 24%. Hyde Park ward's voters have gone from 7,108 to 6,301; St James's ward from 7,281 to 6,502; Bryanston and Dorset Square ward from 6,933 to 6,262. Where have they all gone? This map shows 'missing' residents are clearly a problem in Westminster, but also reveals pockets in Canary Wharf, the City, around Regent's Park and elsewhere in London.

In Islington, the council has found nobody on the electoral register at 30% of 2,000 new homes built in the last six years. One councillor writing at the New Statesman describes one building where, even after checking against council tax information to account for students or sub-lets to people not eligible to vote, around half the flats were apparently unoccupied. 'Missing' voter numbers get even higher for 1 Lamb's Passage near Barbican (71% of private flats; and oh look, here's a website advertising at least one of them as short stay serviced apartments); for Worcester Point near City Road, 65% of the flats have nobody registered to vote. Which is why Islington has decided to try and fine investors who leave property empty (whether it's going to be an effective idea or not is open to debate).

These are all obviously at the higher end of the market, but the downward knock-on effect hits us all if it's blocking desperately needed places to live. Also: we all know we're not building enough homes, and yet too many of the homes we are building are expensive, luxury flats, many of which are evidently destined to be 'safe deposit boxes in the sky'. Numbers of homes built means very little if they're not the right kind of homes, that Londoners actually want to live in and can afford. What if Battersea Power Station ends up 30% empty?

Last Updated 11 December 2014

jim1999

or that this is evidence of higher turnover in the rental market and that people don't bother to register if they live at an address for a year, or that residents of these flats are not permanent residents of the UK (on a 1-2 year work contract)

my gut makes me think these are second homes for rich city workers who's main house is in the country

rrwholloway

Except it's easy to show that 10,000 voters have dropped off the electoral register when the process of gathering the register data is not complete. All the Westminster Labour group did was report on incomplete figures. We shall see what the real picture is when all the data is in.

Titia

Couldn't it also mean people not bothered to register to vote? Already 7.5 million Brits not registered, Electoral Reform Society reported earlier this year that 24% of 18-22 yr olds had never registered, of those who had, a third was added by a parent, which is no longer an option. Other cities, like Liverpool and Manchester, and even Oxford are reporting drops as well - and are attributing it to the new system.

Rachel Holdsworth

These are all salient points, however... People not bothering to register and high turnover: these would have been similar in previous years, wouldn't it, and be carried through as a sort of permanent 'missing' group? The actual individuals might change, but the number of them not bothering to register would likely be roughly constant.

The electoral register is a tricky one, but as I say in the article, nobody's being automatically removed until after the general election. (One ward has lost so many voters the boundaries may need to be re-drawn.) And Islington is also finding 'missing' residents using council tax data, so I'd say it's an issue to keep an eye on.

Mark

If you're a non-EU citizen, you can't register to vote - and whilst EU citizens can vote, I doubt many actually realise this.

However - there is probably some truth to the increasing trend of keeping properties vacant. I have heard it said that for some property owners, "it's not worth the effort", and they'd rather have a place in London at their beck and call (even if it's only a few visits a year). This trend would probably only get worse if Jeanette Arnold's proposed price caps come into play.

How to fix? I would be sorely tempted to have a penalty tax for properties that are kept unoccupied.

Unga Munga

This is really funny, 53.5% of the new homes are kept empty. In terms of numbers there is no house crisis. Working for one of the biggest firm in the business You can have access to some data that left You really worried about home speculation in London. We are building homes not for housing but only for investment from many years. There is no need of a crappy new and largely un-necessary electoral system to reveal that. May be some sane and robust journalism can help.

James Guppy

Tax 'em into the stone age if they let them stand empty.

e3alan

Increased regulations disincentivise people from letting out 2nd homes. If you are a high earner you pay 45% tax on the rental income plus agency and legal fees, insurance, leasehold charges, and sometimes charges to register each new tenant.

Sue Sparks

I live in Hong Kong now but used to live in London and will return at some point. I can recognise this phenomenon very well from HK where many luxury apartments have been built for rich mainland Chinese as investments while local people cannot afford to buy anything. Just this week, some 180 sq feet flats were put on sale here for £135,000. That's the effect. Land is scarcer here, certainly, but profit is what has driven the market in this direction and the same is happening to London.

R

Anecdotal, but I understand that some new builds are advertised in China first and foremost. Have also spoken with an Islington vicar who knows the area inside out; he stated with confidence that a recently built block has very few living breathing residents and the bulk of the flats are permanently unoccupied.