“Billionaires’ Row” farce shows the truth behind the bedroom tax

The government’s bedroom tax punishes the poor who have “unused” rooms in their homes; yet the rich are allowed to own whole streets of empty houses while the country’s homelessness problem gets worse and worse.

Look at the “Billionaires’Row” scandal reported by the Guardian. At least £350m worth of property is sitting unused in The Bishops Avenue, the so-called Billionaires Row, in the London borough of Barnet. The vacant and often ruined properties include 10 mansions previously owned on behalf of the Saudi royal family that have not been lived in for up to 25 years. Local housing and community activist Phoenix Rainbow said it showed “gross mismanagement of the space we have in this country”.

Clive Betts MP, chair of the Commons communities and local government select committee, said the situation in the avenue was “an astounding and stark example of the empty homes problem”. He called for councils to be given powers to treble rates on empty homes after a certain period. Betts said: “People can claim to do what they want with the property they own, but how must those living in cramped and poor accommodation feel when they see some of the most palatial, beautiful, properties with incredible amounts of space going to waste?

“This is a government obsessed by under-occupation of two-bed council houses in London occupied by people with nowhere else to go. But in the same city you have mansions unoccupied with no action being taken.”

Labour’s policy is a 100% council tax levy on empty homes; it estimates there are 50,000 empty homes in London.

Local authorities have the power to take punitive action against absentee landlords who leave houses empty, but the “punitive” action takes the form of council tax hikes that the owners of The Bishop’s Avenue would laugh at. On The Bishops Avenue the fine would be just £1,416.20 a year. And in any case local authorities have little interest in dealing with the problem despite the disparities between the treatment of the rich and the poor, revealed by the numbers of homeless people sleeping rough and the bedroom tax on the poor. Barnet council’s Conservative leader, Richard Cornelius, said: “The Bishops Avenue is in its own little bubble and frankly has little connection with the rest of Barnet. I would rather spend public money bringing family houses back into use than get involved in battles with the lawyers of billionaires.”

Of course, this does not impress those who want something done about homelessness. David Ireland, chief executive of the Homes from Empty Homes campaign, said “There are countless people in inadequate housing and here are homes on The Bishops Avenue that could be used. I call on the local authority to use empty property management orders or enforced sale of these properties. If they showed they were willing to do that it would force other owners to take action.”

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