Over £0.5m spent on council tax at empty prison officers homes

“Disgrace” as empty homes deteriorate

By Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter

Cllr Diarmaid Ward at empty prison officers flats Wellington Mews, next to Pentonville Prison
Cllr Diarmaid Ward at empty prison officers flats Wellington Mews, next to Pentonville Prison. Photo: Julia Gregory/LDRS

Campaigners said it was a “disgrace” that the government has paid £0.6m for family homes sitting empty near Pentonville prison for years, despite calls to use them for families in desperate need of homes.

The Ministry of Justice has shelled out £604,355 on council tax, for the three and four bedroom former prison officers’ homes off Roman Way since 2016.

Islington Council wants to see families living there and is calling on the government to sit down and talk about the flats’ future.

Some doors are insecure and standing open and mail has stacked up in mailboxes outside the Wellington Mews flats which have been sitting empty for years – some for over a decade.

There are also reports the flats are deteriorating and could be used for drug dealing and other crimes – right next to the historic prison.

The flats in two blocks around a courtyard, now used as parking, were built in 1935.

The council tax rate has escalated to 300% of Band D council tax – a penalty devised by government in a bid to release empty homes.

In 2022-23 the Ministry of Justice handed over £145,844 of public money to the council. This is the equivalent of 300% council tax for 28 flats- the rate charged for homes sitting empty for more than ten years.

According to the Ministry’s council tax bills, obtained through a Freedom of Information request in 2016-17, it paid £27,223 for empty prison officers’ flats next to the jail. The Band D rate at that time was £1,296.

Last month prisons minister Damian Hinds told campaigners: “The Ministry of Justice has been and still are considering options for the property, including potential disposal.”

The Ministry of Justice is paying council tax at the ever-increasing empty homes rate the government allowed people to slap on the owners of vacant homes – in a bid to get them back into use.

The council charged the Ministry of Justice 100 per cent council tax for an empty home for the first five years, rising to 200 per cent for the next five years.

The rate sees a hike to 300 per cent after a decade.

It means the Ministry of Justice has spent an estimated £604,355 on the empty homes over the last seven years – that’s more than £22,000 for each flat sitting unoccupied.

It is believed there are now 27 empty flats, with a property guardian in the twenty-eighth.

Overall, that is the equivalent of a year’s salary for 16 Band Three prison officers who can earn £30,000 to £36,000, according to government data.

The money it has paid out is just over the £600,000 guide price for a two bedroom home in a former dairy currently on the market in Drayton Park, Highbury.

Islington Homes for All member Richard Hope said it was an “extraordinary amount of money” to pay out.

Islington’s deputy leader and finance planning lead Cllr Diarmaid Ward called on the Ministry of Justice to talk about the future of the flats.

He said: “The three and four-bedroom flats are sitting empty, it’s a travesty. We have so many families in need of genuinely affordable housing.

“If the Ministry of Justice would work with us we could get these homes back into use. We could renovate them and we could use them to house families in desperate need, overcrowded families and homeless families right here in our borough.”

He said there is “a particular shortage of big family-sized homes and given these are three- and four-bedroom homes we could do so much good with these homes and they would change the lives of so many families if we could get these flats back into use.”

According to the latest statistics Islington council had 126 homeless families in need, many of them with children.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman commented: “We had our application to turn the site into new housing turned down by Islington Borough Council in 2021 so we are continuing to look for the best way to use the property to get value for taxpayers.”

The Ministry declined to comment on the decision to spend money on empty council tax fees.

In 2019, a council proposal to turn the homes into short-term lets stalled.

A later appeal for a certificate of lawfulness by LGP Wellington Mews Ltd failed after it was turned down by the council.

At the time the government inspector said that fittings were stripped out of some of the flats, but some dilapidated timber windows were replaced.

“The external maintenance of the flats is very poor and no other obvious improvements or alterations appear to have been carried out in recent years.”

Cllr Ward is calling on the Ministry of Justice to talk about breathing new life into the flats.

“My door is open, let’s start with a clean sheet. Let’s talk about how we can work together to get these homes back into use for families in desperate need.”

Islington South MP Emily Thornberry has been pushing for the government to use the flast as housing.

She said: “It is an absolute disgrace that the Ministry of Justice is paying hundreds of thousands of pounds every year just to keep these properties vacant, when there are homeless families in the local community desperate for the housing that could be provided there.

“For years, I have been urging action on this issue alongside Islington Council, but we have hit a brick wall in the form of government ministers who either don’t know or don’t care about the money being wasted, and the opportunity going begging. It is high time a solution was found for the collective good of the taxpayer and the local community.”

Discussions over the flats have had a chequered history.

In 2019 Islington politicians asked the Ministry of Justice to consider a council proposal to turn the vacant flats into emergency accommodation.

Officials discussed terms of the government leasing the flats to the council but it stalled as the Minsitry of Justice was also considering other options which might generate a higher income.

Later the council rejected an application for a certificate of lawfulness, a decsion upheld by the planning inspector in 2021.

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