Stuart Woolgar: LONDON IS LOOKING AT ITSELF AT LAST… - Global Guardians
Stuart Woolgar: LONDON IS LOOKING AT ITSELF AT LAST…

It is a long overdue review but finally the London Assembly Housing Committee have turned their attention to the role of property guardianship in London’s housing market. Given the spotlight that has recently fallen on London and its plethora of vacant properties in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, this topic has taken on even more importance and is a welcome investigation.

Global Guardians are one of the leading organisations in this sector with clients across the municipal, social and private property spectrum, especially in and around London where we look after many hundreds of properties.  I was therefore delighted to be asked to go and give evidence to this Committee and offer comment and opinion on topics that are very close to my heart.

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Coverage in the media of property guardianship has been both positive and negative, unfortunately often the latter and frequently due to the companies or the guardians involved, and inevitably the media always prefer to write about the more alarming stories. Bad news always makes headlines.  However, when it is run properly and ethically, property guardianship is a welcome alternative to a section of the population who cannot afford the sometimes unmanageable rents that are charged across the country, and especially in London. Whether it is because they are working for love rather than money, only work part-time, are saving for something special, or many other reasons, it matters not. There is a shortage of affordable housing that that is one of today’s growing social problems.

The number of people fleeing the capital to live elsewhere has hit a five-year high. In the year to June 2016, net outward migration from London reached 93,300 people – more than 80% higher than five years earlier, according to recent analysis of official statistics. A common theme among the leavers’ destinations is significantly cheaper housing, according to the estate agent Savills, who analysed figures from the Office for National Statistics and the Land Registry. The exodus is not just of homeowners, but of renters too. Rents in London have soared by a third in the last decade, compared to 18% in the south-west, 13% in the West Midlands and 11% in the north-west of England.

Because the problem is especially bad in London, the Housing Committee wanted to understand more details of what guardianship is all about: for instance: what type of person becomes a guardian and why and what legal rights do they have compared to private renters?  Do empty properties occupied by guardians have a positive or negative effect on local communities, and are health and safety standards being observed for all concerned? Finally, are there lessons to be learned from current practice or is there a need for better regulation/legislation to make the sector operate better and more transparently?

From my personal perspective and following the lead we have tried to set at Global Guardians, I believe the sector should get its act together and the following should either be the norm or regulations brought in to negate the horror stories that gives the sector occasional bad reviews.  Self regulation is always better, in my opinion, but if matters don’t improve, then a change in the law will inevitably result.

  • All property guardian companies must adhere to the minimum 28 day notice to quit for their guardians and stop cutting deals with owners who want less notice than this – e.g. 3 days’ notice to leave the property. That is an unfair and untenable situation for anyone.
  • All property guardian companies must adhere to health and safety standards for the properties they manage. There are minimum H&S standards for vacant properties under the BS8584 (which I was asked to consult and contribute towards) in order to ensure the building is in an appropriate living condition for the property guardians.
  • All property guardian companies should return any form of deposit to their guardians, without any sharp practices, provided no damage has been caused to the building.
  • All property guardian companies should only select guardians who do not have dependents such as young children as this is unethical, detrimental to the child and difficult to manage with schooling if they have to move on a regular basis.

As I told the Housing Committee, over the past five years we have seen demand from guardians increase by 20% per year because they want affordable city living due to the astronomical rental prices in London. Affordable housing is typically 30% more expensive than guardian properties so this is not affordable to people on low or restricted incomes. People are finding it harder and harder to get on to the property ladder and not all can stay living at home, so becoming a guardian allows them to save up for a deposit to buy as not all their income will be tied up in a commitment to high rent or commuting costs.

Demand has also increased from property owners over the past 5 years (15% year on year). Contrary to public perception, social and municipal property owners, such as councils, housing associations and the NHS, don’t have the considerable budget needed for security guards as opposed to potentially spending NO money on property guardian solutions. If property guardians didn’t exist, then our housing association, NHS and local authority/council clients would be spending millions on security guards which is money they can now save and put back into building homes, supporting residents, supporting patients, etc.

We expect this demand will continue to grow due to the amount of developments, decants, empty properties and increase in short term/temporary demand for workspace and/or accommodation. As we know, the NHS estate is being sold in accordance with the Naylor Report so these specialist buildings tend to be empty for long periods until they are sold. In many cases still, these are currently being protected by costly security guards which means the NHS is wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds when they could use property guardians and cut this cost to virtually zero.

This is the reason for the increase in demand, it is simple economics, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of the London Assembly investigation and hopefully some positive decisions about beneficial use of vacant properties. Maybe if they are innovative, forward thinking and decisive, where they lead, other Councils around the country will follow and we may begin to notice a sea change in ideas about guardianship and the constructive use empty property can be put to.

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