The Grenfell Tower tragedy that has caused so much death, injury and sorrow, has also brought the question of wealth inequality into stark relief.
Survivors of the fire now find themselves out on the street with no possessions and no roof over their heads, while land-banked buildings lie empty around them.
Showing his true communist colours, Jeremy Corbyn said straight away that vacant Kensington properties of wealthy overseas investors should be requisitioned to provide housing for those affected by the fire.
“It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live. We have to address these issues,” he said.
This has of course polarised opinion with some saying it is the right thing to do and others that it is wrong to interfere in the private property of others.
Now we all, I hope, feel the utmost sympathy for those who have lost their homes, possessions and worse loved ones in this sad event. But, is the arbitrary targeting of these empty properties the right way to proceed?
Some argue that this is a case of human need being paramount over other peoples’ unused wealth. That the rich should just accept the temporary hit. You can only empathise at the very recent news that those left homeless by the fire, feel so betrayed that they have stormed their town hall looking for help and answers.
But others would say that once we start on this slippery slope then where does it stop and who decides when land or money should be extracted, whose property should be taken and how much? And how long would temporary actually end up lasting? After all, the taxpayer would need to ensure that the properties met all legal requirements and were furnished properly etc. They also point out that the London School of Economics puts the proportion of land-banked residential properties in London at less than one percent.
The question may at present though be a moot point, as it is reported that the law does not support such an action by government and it could be successfully challenged in court. But emergency legislation could overcome that if there was real political will to do it.
But short term emergency legislation will, by its very nature, be ill-thought through and, at the end of the day, probably throw up many more problems than solutions.
One of the consequences of such an act though, would be to make the UK a much less attractive place to buy property for land-banking. This is something many would like to see as it keeps land off of the market, keeping house prices artificially high. But others see land-banking as a legitimate investment strategy.
What we need to do is decide if we want this type of property speculation to continue in one of the most crowded areas of the planet. If we do then keep the status quo. If not then let’s look at ways of addressing it, possibly through the tax system in a way that incentivises bringing land quickly into productive use.
Maybe this is something to slot into the now delayed Queen’s Speech for the new government?