Grenfell Tower: Is Jeremy Corbyn's demand for wealthy home seizures actually possible?

Is Jeremy Corbyn's call for empty homes owned by the rich in Kensington to be 'requisitioned' for Grenfell Tower residents possible?

The Labour leader called for empty houses owned by the wealthy to be used as housing for the residents of Grenfell tower

Friday, June 16, 2017

As relief efforts to assist the surviving residents of Grenfell Tower continue, Jeremy Corbyn's popularity has shot up even further as he leads the campaign for action.

Corbyn visited the scene earlier this week and was photographed hugging one of the residents, a stark contrast to Theresa May's refusal to talk to those affected. Now he's made an extraordinary demand - for empty homes belonging to rich people in the Kensington area to be “requisitioned” in order to house the displaced people.

Corbyn talked of Kensington being a schizophrenic borough, "a tale of two cities" as he put it. It's easy to see what he means - after all the average property price in Kensington is roughly £1.3 million, according to figures gathered by real estate website Rightmove. There couldn't be a bigger contrast with the peeling, rusting tower block that erupted in flames on Wednesday.

The world’s super-rich – oligarchs, businessmen – buy property in the area and across London as a way to protect their wealth. In fact, the number of homes being unused rose in Kensington and neighbouring Chelsea rose by 22.7%  from 2006 to 2016.

So the data backs up Corbyn's comments about Kensington. But there are two obvious questions about his demand for property seizure: Firstly, is it legally viable? And secondly, has it ever been done before?

Well, the answer to both is yes.

During the Second World War, the government requisitioned land from around the UK for military purposes, among other reasons. While those extraordinary circumstances don't apply in peacetime, there is a clear, perfectly legal route for public bodies to seize vacant properties.

The legal device is known as an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). These were created under the Housing Act 2004, and are meant to serve as encouragement for owners to resume the use of their homes, or open up discussions of other options available – like letting the property out.

The EDMO is meant to be discretionary, used only as a last resort. Since the act made it law in 2004, there have been only a number of orders issued – the figure was 43 at the end of 2010. But, given the huge humanitarian tragedy which has unfolded at Grenfell Tower this week, anyone wishing to invoke the EDMO as an emergency would certainly have a strong case.

However, there are certain prerequisites which the property must have before an EDMO can be sanctioned. It must have been unoccupied for at least six months or longer, with no “reasonable prospect” of becoming inhabited by the owner in the near future. Under the 2010 coalition government, the terms were extended to include the possibility of the house “becoming a nuisance to the community” – i.e. being vandalised or inhabited by squatters. Thus if, say, Kensington and Chelsea borough council wanted to seize a property from a super-rich oligarch, they would have to prove the property had been vacant for a long period of time. And, given some of the oligarch's investment flats may be maintained by a property management firm, this task could be fiendishly difficult.

Then, if the property is deemed applicable for an EDMO order, the local authority is obliged to contact the owner to discuss the options - and it's unlikely that the various foreign billionaires of Jeremy Corbyn's imagination would allow their prime investment to be occupied by someone they've never met. 

There is is a way round this. If the owner does not comply with the local authority, the Residential Property Tribunal Service can grant an interim EDMO which removes the decision from their hands. Once it becomes a final EDMO, the authority does not require the consent of the owner to grant rights of occupation. However, this by nature can be a lengthy process.

Furthermore, there are a number of conditions which render properties exempt from EDMOs, even if they are currently unoccupied. Most pertinently in this case, an EDMO can't be applied to holiday homes or homes which are occupied occasionally by the owner - for example, when they're in the city on business. Given this definition applies to many of the properties owned by wealthy foreign individuals in Kensington, indeed throughout the whole city, the number of properties which could be targeted for requisition might be frustratingly small.

Jeremy Corbyn's requisition idea certainly sounds good, and there is a clear legal pathway to achieving it. But even if the Government were minded to adopt such an aggressive policy, which could dampen the London property market and drain foreign investment from the UK, it seems far too complex to work.