Estimating ‘buy to leave’ in Kensington & Chelsea by Action on Empty Homes researcher Chujan Sivathasan

One may have heard the tales of streets, in the richest parts of Kensington & Chelsea, that lie eerily empty. Streets that often fail to show any signs of life. Streets of homes that remain unlit at night. These are streets which are blighted by a phenomenon known as ‘buy to leave’, whereby homes are bought by the super-wealthy and deliberately left empty - as a store of wealth and means of making money via asset appreciation.

Data from the latest Council Taxbase reveals that Kensington & Chelsea is home to the highest proportion of long-term empty properties of all of London’s boroughs. But it is unclear how many of these properties are ‘buy to leave’. Determining if a long-term empty home is being used for ‘buy to leave’ is a tricky exercise. Analysis is complicated by the lack of any reliable official register or dataset.

This problem exists because such properties are likely to fall within the ‘second home’ category of official data. This is a poorly defined category that contains 10% of the Kensington & Chelsea’s homes (over 8,500 homes) as compared with the 1,179 homes which fall into the official long-term empty category in the borough.

However, thanks to novel data collected by UCL’s Jonathan Bourne, one is able to reasonably accurately determine the existence of ‘buy to leave’. Using freedom of information requests, Bourne created a rich dataset of under-utilised properties - including those left empty for over two years - across 112 of England’s local authorities including Kensington & Chelsea.

Traditionally, long-term empty homes are found in areas of lower incomes and greater deprivation. ‘Buy to leave’ an exception to this. So by comparing the incidence of long-term empty homes left empty for more than two years (2016-17), using Bourne’s data, with indices of multiple deprivation (2019) across Kensington & Chelsea’s LSOAs (Lower Layer Super Output Areas) - one is able to identify the presence of ‘buy to leave’.

Below is a map of Kensington & Chelsea and its LSOAs, shaded by multiple deprivation - with darker hues indicating higher levels of deprivation. On top, levels of long-term empty homes have been annotated in red (where there are 10 or more). One can see that the vast majority of long-term empty homes are located in areas of low deprivation. This strongly points to the presence of ‘buy to leave’, as it is unlikely these homes are empty due to deprivation and disrepair.

More precisely, 79% of the borough’s long-term empty homes are situated within the 50% least deprived neighbourhoods in the country. In fact, 50% sit within the 30% least deprived neighbourhoods in the country.

The evidence appears clear. A significant number of homes located in Kensington & Chelsea are, quite likely, being left empty for ‘buy to leave’. At a time when thousands of Londoners are living in temporary accommodation and the capital’s housing is historically unaffordable, this situation seems scandalous. Especially when set against the Borough’s current levels of housing need, not least in re-housing those made homeless by the Grenfell fire.

For more on the impact of wealth investment in residential property in Kensington and Chelsea see Rex Atkinson of Kingston University’s work ‘Anchoring Wealth in place: The grounded impact of international wealth chains on housing markets in London’ here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098019839875

For Jonathan Bourne’s work ‘Empty homes: mapping the extent and value of low-use domestic property in England and Wales’ see: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0216-y