Tory grandee insists Belgravia is second-home haven for ‘Downton Abbey brigade’
Mega-rich keeping empty homes in Westminster but Steven Norris says: 'So what?'
06 October, 2017 — By Richard Osley in Manchester
RICH people should not be punished for holding second homes in upmarket areas like Belgravia, a Tory grandee has told members at the party’s annual conference in Manchester.
Steven Norris – a former transport minister who twice stood to be London Mayor against Ken Livingstone – said a new crackdown on underused properties was a distraction to solving the city’s real housing challenges.
He said the wealthy have owned rarely-used properties in London since the Downton Abbey age, adding: “Frankly, so what?”
His comments cut across London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s appeal to government for powers to increase council tax on empty homes, a move which was openly supported by Westminster Council leader Councillor Nickie Aiken and scored headlines.
Despite this cross-party agreement, Mr Norris, speaking at a fringe meeting in a conference room at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on Monday, said that Mr Khan was had “leapt on the issue because he thought he had a stick to beat the Tories with”.
He said: “Actually – rather inconveniently for him [Mr Khan] – that turned out to be a bit of a myth. The number is absolutely tiny. It has no impact whatever on the general shortage of housing in the capital. Anybody who watched Downton Abbey – don’t lie to me, we know you did – will know they all lived down at Highclere Castle but they also rented a house in Belgravia which they used for three weeks a year during the season. Belgravia has never had full time tenants. It has always been an area where very very wealthy people could allow themselves to have a second home.”
He faced opposition in the room from some delegates, but added: “Yes, there are very rich people – literally the Downton Abbey brigade who can afford to turn up for a fortnight a year, watch their son play at Eton or whatever. I get all that but frankly ‘so what’. It happens in every major city of the world. I think if we believe in a free society, people using their properly taxed income in any way they want – and I have no problem with them buying a home and then not using it all that much. It’s certainly not the answer to London’s housing shortage.”
The meeting, organised by political website Unherd, had discussed a series of ideas for soothing the capital’s homes crisis. At one point, Mr Norris turned to the audience and added: “Incidentally, there may be some people in this room who have got a second home, maybe in France but don’t go there for more than two or three months a year.”
He said that some answers could be found in some flexibility on green belt land and high rise housing, as well as continued development of former industrial land in east London.
Several local authorities have called on a cap on levies to be lifted and permission to charge a double rate of council tax on second homes that are largely kept empty.
Mr Khan wrote to the government last month asking for stronger powers, telling ministers: “In the midst of a housing crisis, just one home left unoccupied is one too manyThat is why I will be working closely with boroughs like Westminster City Council to fight Londoners’ corner by calling for the government to allow boroughs to charge a higher Council Tax on empty properties at a rate that makes a difference.”
Ms Aiken said at the time: “”I support the Mayor’s proposal for greater flexibility to be afforded to local authorities around the amount that could be levied on empty homes. Not only is it an important message to send out, it would also generate additional funds to be invested in our areas for the benefit of local residents. Along with the Mayor I have made it my priority to ensure that we have genuinely affordable housing in the heart of the capital.”