View of a row of terraced homes.
Westminster Council wants residents to help it identify empty properties and is seeking new powers to tackle long-term empty homes. Photo: Fitzrovia News.

Westminster Council has this month pledged to crack down on the number of empty homes in the borough and has launched a new strategy for properties vacant for more than six months.

As part of the strategy it will ask residents to help the council identify homes that are left empty in an effort to bring them back into use. In the coming months, locals will be asked to report homes that are lived in less than half the year by making a report via a dedicated telephone number or email address.

An empty property officer will also engage with homeowners to encourage them to “make empty space available for rent”, and the buying of property in the borough for holiday homes will be discouraged. It comes as the authority’s council tax data shows a 123 percent increase in the number of long-term empty residential properties (LTEP) between 2021 and 2022.

The real number is expected to be higher than the 1,150 properties recorded for this period due to previous reliance on self-reporting. The same data shows that more affluent wards have the highest number of empty properties as they are more attractive for absentee international investors.

Research conducted by the GLA suggests that LTEP in London are complicated by interrelated issues of second homes and potential buy-to-leave investments. Westminster will introduce an empty property officer to help fully unpick why so many homes in prime locations have been left vacant in recent years.

The council said current local authority powers to tackle the vacant properties are “limited and restrictive”, and it will lobby the government for greater powers to bring empty homes back into use.

“The council will be proactively addressing LTEP over the next year, marking a departure from the current approach, which is charging the highest Council Tax possible on LTEP, but generally only getting involved if the property is dangerous,” states a report.

It said its new approach will aim to bring homes back into use by increasing housing supply, especially in the private rented sector, and to improve knowledge of LTEP and how to tackle them, through an alliance of stakeholders.

They stated that any opportunity for empty homes to be used for temporary accommodation or affordable housing will be acted upon.

The council is also keen to bolster its strategy to stop property in the borough from being bought as a means to launder money.

Adam Hug, Leader of Westminster City Council, said: “In some respects, having some of the country’s most desirable postcodes is a good problem to have. It’s great that people from across the world invest in our city but the rise in vacant homes is alarming and we know the current figures are likely to underestimate the problem.

“For many, the thought of so many homes in Westminster sitting empty, essentially left to rot, while thousands wait for housing, will be hard to swallow.

“These measures are an important first step in tackling the issue of empty houses in Westminster, where absentee international investment can hollow out our communities and waste a vital supply of homes.

“Our current powers are blunt instruments. We need to gain a better understanding of the problem and make it desirable to rent vacant property while penalising those who leave much-needed homes empty,” he said.

An empty property officer was recruited in December 2022 to develop an interim strategy. The approach for tackling empty homes will now be developed over the next 12 months in order to develop a long term comprehensive strategy.

Westminster City Council: Long Term Empty Residential Properties (Private Sector) Interim Strategy Statement.