Empty homes campaigners slammed Southwark Council’s housing chief’s claims that infilling is the only solution to housing shortages at a protest in Aylesbury Estate on Saturday.
In a recent exclusive interview with the News, cabinet member for housing and homelessness Stephanie Cryan claimed that infilling projects – building new homes in open spaces between existing social housing – was the only way to reduce the 16,000-strong waiting list for council homes.
She also claimed that out of a housing stock of around 55,000, only 1.5 per cent were vacant at any given time – but this figure excludes empty homes on regeneration sites which form the vast majority of vacant properties; around 980 out of a current total of 1,351.
In a new strategy for tackling empty homes in the private sector published by the council this week, the local authority says it has just 37,000 tenanted homes – in contrast to the 55,000 total figure – and that its overall vacancy rate including regeneration sites is actually 3.9 per cent compared to 5.3 per cent across the borough as a whole.
Last Saturday, protestors gathered on the Aylesbury Estate to reject Cllr Cryan’s claims and called instead for the council to refurbish existing empty homes for those on the waiting list, chanting “housing for people, not for profit,” and “no demolition without permission.”
The rally was part of a nationwide protest against empty homes organised by housing, community and trade union organisations coalition Campaign Against Empty Homes.
The protest was live-streamed, and included statements from MP Jeremy Corbyn, co-leader of the Green Party Carla Denyer, and Big Issue founder John Bird.
Each speaker in the livestream called for councils to focus on retrofitting and refurbishing existing empty flats rather than building new ones, with many calling for a “retrofitting revolution.”
Aylesbury Estate leaseholder Victoria, who attended the protest, said: “I’ve been fighting the council on this for fifteen years. I’m so disappointed.
“The flats are empty when a lot of people need accommodation. Why aren’t they giving these rooms to the people who need them?
“They clearly have some money to build the new flats – so why don’t they just spend it on refurbishment instead?”
Victoria faces having to move out of her home in order to allow the council to continue their major regeneration project in Aylesbury Estate, which aims to provide 3500 new homes by 2036, with a target of half of them classed as affordable housing.
“I’ve lived there for thirty years and I really love my flat and the location,” she said.
“It feels like council are pushing us out. Why do I have to leave my home for something that’s not even going to help that much, when there are empty homes waiting?”
A proposal for a plan to deal with the issue of empty homes was released on Tuesday by Southwark Council, and will be discussed by cabinet on October 19.
The plan focuses on homes in the private sector – according to council tax records, 5,800 of the 7,700 empty homes in the borough are private.
The council aims to encourage property owners to bring their empty homes back into use, including through guaranteed income levels and taking on the burden of management via the council’s own Social Lettings Agency.
However, the council states that it is reliant on the government’s help to bring these projects into effect, and is calling for greater flexibility over council tax premiums on empty homes.
This includes the ability to set its own level of council tax for empty homes, and to define for themselves what constitutes an “empty” home. At the moment, empty homes that are still furnished suffer no council tax penalty.
They are also calling for Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) and Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) to be reformed so that the council can more easily enforce them for empty homes.
These demands echo a letter sent by Cllr Helen Dennis to former government housing minister Robert Jenrick in April, where she urged him to “provide local authorities with the power within planning policy to insist on full occupancy as a condition of planning permission.”
Cabinet member for a cleaner, safer Borough, Cllr Darren Merrill, said: “Empty homes are an act of injustice when we have over 16,000 households on our waiting list for a home and over 3,400 households living in temporary accommodation.
“Where landlords are not willing to engage with us, we will use all the powers we have to take a zero-tolerance approach and bring these properties back into use.
“However, the government must untie our hands.”