‘Absolute disgrace’: Campaigners renew calls for empty government-owned flats to be turned over to the council

Cllr Diarmaid Ward, pictured outside the flats in question. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Housing campaigners have slammed the government for racking up a £361,000 bill on 28 empty flats for Pentonville Prison officers over three years – despite a shortage of homes in Islington.

Morag Gillie from Islington Homes for All said: “It’s a total waste of public money. There are people desperate for housing. It will not benefit the local community keeping them empty.”

She added: “The money they have spent on paying extra council tax, security and maintenance should have been used for refurbishing the flats and having people live in them.”

Campaigners recently presented a petition to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) calling for it to hand the empty flats over to the council.

The MoJ spent £3,353 on security at the vacant flats at Wellington Mews in the last financial year, and paid £145,844 in council tax in the same period.

The figures were revealed this week by justice minister Damian Hinds, in response to a parliamentary question from shadow attorney general and Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry.

She has lobbied with Islington Council for the government to give the homes to the local authority and help house families on its waiting list.

She said it was “an absolute disgrace” that the MoJ is spending money on vacant homes despite the dire need for housing.

“It is high time a solution was found for the collective good of the taxpayer and the local community,” she said.

Hinds said the MoJ also spent £22,494 in maintenance on the flats in 2019, the same year it paid a £75,918 tax bill to Islington Council.

In the financial year 2020/21, it paid out £113,392 in council tax.

The cost has soared over the years as the buildings remain empty.

Islington Council is now charging council tax at 300 per cent because the flats have been empty for more than a decade.

The Citizen previously revealed that the MoJ spent £600,000 in council tax for the empty flats over the last seven years.

This summer, members of campaign group Housing Rebellion occupied the flats in protest.

They said: “These homes have been left empty for so long, while many, many families are living in cramped temporary accommodation with little chance of being rehoused.”

Islington Council’s deputy leader Cllr Diarmaid Ward said: “We very much want to get these 28 three- and four-bedroom homes at Wellington Mews back into use for local families in desperate need of decent, genuinely affordable housing.”

He said a 2019 agreement with the MoJ to use the flats as temporary accommodation for homeless families stalled at the last minute.

“Since then, the Ministry of Justice have refused to make a full planning application. If they did, 50 per cent of these homes would need to be genuinely affordable for local families in line with our planning policies.”

He urged the MoJ to resume discussions “about how we can work together to get homes back into use for local families in need – my door is always open”.

He added: “Meanwhile these much-needed homes are still empty, gathering dust and racking up costs.”

A MoJ spokesperson said: “An application to turn the site into new housing was turned down by Islington Borough Council in 2021, so we are continuing to look for the best way to use the property.”