Houses of the super-rich: ripe for squatting?

Sneaking in through an open Belgravia garden flat window.

It's not often that I say this, but the Guardian got it right. In an editorial on the criminalisation of squatting, it said that squatting is a symptom of our much larger housing crisis: builders own land but won't put up new houses because people can't get mortgages to buy them with, bringing us back - as always - to the financial crisis.

The financial crisis has had another interesting effect on the housing crisis, this time from the other end. As the FT today reports, there has never been higher demand for London luxury property: foreign money - especially of late from the PIGS - is sloshing its way into London because property here keeps its value and your title is generally safe. It's then quite common for owners to spend only a fortnight or a month in their London houses. Prime and super-prime London continue to accelerate, driving up local prices with their ripples.

And where might these two trends meet? In squatting, perhaps. The lack of supply at the bottom meets the supply of expensive empty houses at the top and attractive opportunities for squatting - sneaking in through an open Belgravia garden flat window, say - might arise. This rarely happens, however: the ripest cherries are never bitten. The super-wealthy, according to Charlie Ellingworth of property finders Property Vision, may not live in their houses much but they keep them well-protected: "Most have housekeepers or house sitters or burglar alarms… people who come every day to check it, flush the loos, turn the heating on." So squatting doesn't affect the largely-empty houses of the very wealthy but buildings abandoned for dereliction, hardly the sort of places you'd want to raise a family.

Our entire housing system is in trouble and shows no signs of being righted. Squatting is the desperate response, not the problem.

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's.

Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's magazine.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.