Trellick Tower in west London. Photo: Getty
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Vast swathes of London are becoming unaffordable even to those on “good” incomes

London property is seen as a safe place for overseas investors to park their money. But with a lack of affordable housing in the capital while these properties sit empty, something has to change.

Barely a week goes by without a news story about overseas buyers snapping up London property. London housing has been described as a global reserve currency, with many seeing it as a safe place to park their money. There are anecdotal reports of areas of London becoming ghost towns as swathes of properties are left empty, with the architect of one such “ghost” development calling for a severe tax on those who leave homes empty.

London is a diverse global city where we rightly celebrate the fact that people from across the world want to live and work here. Yet there is a growing feeling that people with no intention of ever living or working here are profiting from our booming property market while those who do live here, wherever they’re from, are being squeezed harder and harder by our housing crisis.

But what is the real extent of overseas investment in London, what are the consequences of this and what, if anything, should be done about it?

These were the questions put to experts at a roundtable discussion hosted by me at City Hall. The event brought together a diverse range of voices from politicians and academics to developers and estate agents.

What is clear is that for all the newspaper headlines, very little research exists into the extent and effect of overseas investment. Estate agents Knight Frank have estimated that in the two years to October 2013 49 per cent of all new build purchases in ‘prime’ central London were made by overseas investors, 20 per cent in the wider inner-London area and 7 per cent in outer-London. In June 2012 the Smith Institute reported that 60 per cent of new homes in central London were bought by overseas investors.

The problem is that these figures rely primarily on data assembled by estate agents with differing methodology for a variety of purposes. No definitive data exists and no official monitoring takes place. The Greater London Authority would be in a prime position to commission such research. However, despite repeated requests from the London Assembly, the Mayor has so far refused to do so.

What we do know is that vast swathes of London are becoming unaffordable even to those on “good” incomes. The average house price is soaring towards the £500,000 mark. With most first time buyers unable to raise a deposit without help from their parents, and with historically low interest rates making saving unattractive, demand for housing is increasingly coming from those who already own a home as people enter the buy-to-let market.

For this reason it is clear that overseas investment cannot be looked at in isolation from domestic property speculation. However, with many new developments being funded by off-plan sales to overseas buyers how can local people feel that they are benefiting when a new block of luxury flats rises up over them?

There is a clear need to distinguish between different types of overseas investment: capital appreciation investment, where a home is bought purely to appreciate in value, and supply-generating investment, which results in an increase in the supply of housing for those who need to live and work here.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking is “how can we make overseas investment work for Londoners?”

Data from Islington suggest that homes being bought up by overseas buyers are increasingly being left empty. Across 10,000 homes built over the last six years in the borough there is a 3 per cent rate of properties in which no one is on the electoral register. Yet in several new developments in the south of the borough bordering the City that figure rises to almost 50 per cent. While the level of electoral registration is by no means a perfect measure of whether or not a home is actually being left empty, this level of discrepancy does suggest that something strange is going on.

In a city with an acute housing crisis, buying homes and leaving them empty is an obscene luxury that Londoners can ill-afford. Councils must be given much stronger powers to raise taxes on empty and even second homes. Given the level of capital appreciation we are talking about, the government’s decision to allow councils to charge 150% council tax on empty properties does not go anywhere near far enough.

Local authorities could also follow Islington Council's lead and impose planning conditions which specify that new homes must be occupied, requiring payments for those that are not.

Ultimately the reason people want to buy London property, whether they are from overseas or not, is that our houses are seen as commodities more than they are seen as homes. With house prices seeming to rise inexorably, property is becoming the only game in town for people with a bit of money to invest. After all, with most investments there is a risk that its value may go down instead of up. That risk in London’s property market is perceived to be very small indeed. The government’s announcement in the budget to allow people to cash in their pension will only stoke this problem as pensioners decide to enter the buy-to-let market.

The real solution is therefore twofold: making other forms of investment more attractive, and doing something to arrest the rise in house prices. The latter will require significant investment in new homes. What government, the Mayor and local authorities need to do is ensure that overseas investment contributes to an increase in the supply of affordable properties, rather than simply fuelling demand.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue