Imagine if there was a law that prevented the rich from leaving luxury properties empty as investments. Even better, imagine if this law ensured that if a home was left vacant for over six months then local authorities could take over the management of the property and use it as part of their own housing stock to provide temporary accommodation for homeless people. That would be a good fucking law, and that’s a rare thing. And it is a law that the Labour Party accidentally introduced, although their target was not the rich, but squatters and those they claimed were involved in anti-social behaviour.
Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) came into effect in 2006 to tackles the problem of empty homes which the government said were “magnets for vandals, drug users, squatters and even arsonists”. They operated exactly as described above, with powers for councils to take over vacant properties and rent them out to those waiting for permanent housing. Of course this being Tony Blair’s Labour Party the new powers were awash with bureacracy and caveats to protect the rich. Second homes were to be sadly exempt from the legislation, as were many other empty properties such as holiday homes. Councils would have to make legthy application to a tribunal and property owners were given wide-ranging rights of appeal. This didn’t stop the right wing press going into meltdown over the legislation with The Sunday Times declaring Britain had become a communist country.
In the end just 43 EDMOs were issued between 2006 and 2010. The great expropriation had not happened and the rich continued to horde land and housing as much as ever. This didn’t stop Eric Pickles rushing to change the laws within months of the Tory’s stealing power in 2010.
Pickles, who was Communities Secretary at the time, announced in early 2011 that he was bringing to an end these ‘heavy handed’ rules. This news was barely reported at the time. Now EDMOs can only be issued if a property has been empty for over two years, and more importantly only when local councils can prove the property is being used for anti-social purposes. Pickles said he did this to protect civil liberties.
There seems little doubt that EDMOs could have been issued against rich investors who buy up luxury properties and leave them empty – a phenomena that is now extending to other cities besides London. It would have been difficult, and might not have worked – oligarchs have good lawyers – but it would have been worth a try for an imaginative local authority facing growing homelessness. But now that option has been shut down, to protect the civil liberties of the global super rich who see the booming housing market in the South East as nothing more than an exclusive casino where they always get to win. And so the number of empty homes in London is now back on the rise despite a desperate housing crisis and record numbers sleeping on the streets. That’s what this government calls freedom.
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