There’s No Place Like (Your Own) Home – If You Can Afford One:

If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to buy a flat (or a penthouse) overlooking the River Thames – don’t despair. A new option has suddenly become available. Last week, 800 homes at the “Circus West” development project (located at Battersea Power Station, built in the 1930’s and famous for its “iconic” four chimneys) went on sale. If you’re really interested, you’d better hurry. According to London’s “Evening Standard” (ES), Rob Tincknell (chief executive of the Battersea Power Station Development Company) expects all these properties to be sold by the end of this month – even though they won’t be ready for occupation until 2016/17. Oh, by the way (as the “Guardian” has pointed out), signing up for one of these places will require an immediate £2,500 reservation fee, then an additional 10% of the purchase price within 21 days. A studio apartment will cost you at least £338,000; the starting price for a “one-bed flat is £423,000, two-beds £613,000, three-beds £894,000”. If, however, you’ve set your heart on a penthouse suite, you’ll need access to around £6 million.

Perhaps, on reflection, these amounts are a little beyond the combined allowances on your credit cards and  you’ll decide tolook elsewhere – in which case, who will move in instead? Henry Pryror (the “BBC’s favourite property expert”) has been quoted in the Guardian as noting that “It’s difficult to see where domestic buyers are going to come from who can afford such prices” and (according to the ES), Jeremy Raj (property partner at London law firm Wedlake Bell) has been in contact with “wealthy (Indian & Chinese) parents looking to buy a flat as a home for a child studying in London”. Government statistics suggest that very few “under-30’s” in Britain will be rushing to submit a “Circus West” application. An “English Housing Survey” has revealed that, between 2008  (the beginning of the global economic crisis) and 2011, 32.3% of “first-time buyers” were aged 35 and over and that (of this number), 6.5% were in their late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. These figures, says the “Daily Mail”, “highlight the struggle young people face as they try to get a foothold on the housing ladder”. Furthermore, not only does this mean that “renting is becoming a way of life for a whole generation of Britons” (Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, the housing charity”) but that many of them “cannot even afford to rent and are forced to live at home with their parents into their late ‘30’s or even ‘40’s”.

The latest “Buy-to-Let Index” from LSL Property Services plc (released on January 18th) shows there has been a 3.2% increase in the average monthly rent in England & Wales since December 2011. London “has seen the largest annual rise” (6.3%: £1087 per month) followed by the South East (+ £3.9%: £756 pm) and the North East (+2.2%; £518pm). The only decline has been in the East Midlands (-1.2%; £540pm) and Wales (-0.8%: £555pm). A consequence of this upward trend has been that “the total amount of rent late or unpaid is now £326 million, which equates to 10.1% of all rent across England & Wales”.

On the “Inside Housing” website (9th January), the writer Tom Lloyd referred to Shelter’s report that “rental costs in most areas of London are eating up more than 50% of family incomes” and that “ rising rents, the constant threat of eviction and hidden fees” form an integral part of the capital’s “frantic rental market”. Shelter’s “Top 10 Most Unaffordable Boroughs” are: Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Camden, Islington, Hammersmith & Fulham, Brent, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Haringey and Ealing. The online “Huffington Post” has also published extracts from a “YouGov” survey (on behalf of Shelter) disclosing that “41% of parents do not believe that their children will ever be able to afford to get on the housing ladder, even if they work hard and save”.

So: If the under ‘30’s don’t have sufficient income or resources of their own to rent or buy a property, but don’t want to rely on their parents, what do they do and where do they live? Until the introduction of the “Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act” on September 1st 2012”, squatting in empty residential property provided the obvious solution and an “alternative lifestyle” (The The 12th January edition of “The Economist” cited a Ministry of Justice estimate of around 20,00 people currently occupying squats in England & Wales. Some are “hippie-ish and political” (such as the ones who have taken over a library in Friern Barnet which the local council wanted to close). Others are simply “homeless and desperate”.

Data provided by “CHAIN” (The National Health Service’s “Contact, Help, Advice and Information Network”) specifies that “ 5,678 people “slept rough” (eg: in the street, on park benches or in shop doorways) at some point in London during 2011/12, a 43% increase on the previous year’s total of 3,975 and that around 2,181 people “sleep rough” on any one night in England. Section 144 of the September 1st Act has made it an offence to squat in private residential premises, punishable by a maximum six month prison sentence, a £5,000 fine or both. Joseph Black, a spokesman for “SQUASH” (“Squatters’ Action For Secure Homes”) believes this legislation will “criminalize young people who may have had no other way of getting a roof above their head” and has acknowledged (to “The Economist”) that their options “are definitely narrowing”.

There’s still one remaining possibility: It’s not yet illegal to occupy private commercial property – which is why, since September 2012, squatting groups have been moving into empty pubs (18 are closing down every week) such as the “Cross Keys” in Chelsea, “The Tournament” (Earls Court), the “Upper Bell Inn” (near Chatham in Kent) as well as the former “Charter Clinic” in Chelsea (which reputedly once treated superstar Michael Jackson). Tracey Crouch, (Conservative MP for Chatham & Aylesford), is campaigning for the legislation to be extended to all private premises – on the basis that owners of warehouses & commercial enterprises “are having to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds clearing out squatters”. He is likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from the Justice Minister, Crispin Blunt, who has (in the ES) depicted squatting as “an industry” and a “life-style choice”, not as a housing issue. Which rather conflicts with the “Empty Homes” charity’s contention that “approximately 950,000 properties” have been wastefully left empty” –  while across the country homelessness rates have continued to rise.



Filed under: Society | Posted on January 22nd, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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