A tale of two devils and the shame of empty homes in Grenfell’s shadow…

“YOU’VE been reading the Guardian again” is an accusation thrown my way sometimes by those to the right of me and those to the left.

Guilty as charged, although I do dip into different casks. The old Blairite – another accusation – sitting on my right shoulder directs me sometimes to the Spectator online, where much of interest can be found. And the dusty old idealist sitting on my leftie shoulder points me towards the New Statesman.

But this morning, let’s begin with the Guardian and a good – if shameful ­ – report. In a few paragraphs, reference will be made also to the front page of the Sun and the Great British Bake Off, should you fancy a lighter sponge.

According to today’s edition, the London borough in which the remains of Grenfell Tower stand like a charred tomb also contains 1,652 properties listed as unoccupied by Kensington and Chelsea council.

While residents who survived that atrocity remain homeless, properties are left empty by wealthy absentee owners, including “a Ukrainian billionaire fighting extradition to the US, a former mayor of New York, a high-profile luxury property developer and a senior television executive”.

Oligarchs, foreign royalty and multimillionaire business people own vacant properties, some within sight of the burned-out tower block where at least 80 people died.

The names of the owners were accidentally sent by the council to the Guardian and “multiple recipients” with details of the council tax information of the vacant homes and their 1,197 distant owners. More than a third of those homes were reported as having been empty for at least two years.

Was that release of information an accident or the actions of a whistle-blower keeping their head low? Who knows, but the revelation is a disgrace, if not exactly a surprise.

What a perfect illustration of how housing in this country risks becoming a game only the wealthy can play; and in London that is happening already. For people to buy up properties they don’t need – as in need in terms of a roof over their heads – and keep them sitting empty to cash in on rising property prices is shameful.

Jeremy Corbyn, who inspires in me cautious regard and a dusting of scepticism, said that empty properties in the borough should be taken over to house those made homeless by the fire. And he has a point.

But it’s unlikely to happen, as the ultra-rich find ways of protecting themselves, extreme wealth being the most reliable form of insulation known to man.

The answers are hard to find, although if you are looking for a cause – or the main cause – hover your magnifying glass over Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sell council houses cheap to tenants, in a bid to turn more people into Tories.

Governments since of both persuasions have done little to improve matters, and now we have a situation where some people are as likely to be able to afford a home as they are to win the lottery. That is also their only hope of joining the home-owning classes – of which, hardly surprising disclosure, I am a member, thanks to lucky timing and years of mortgage payments.

A few paragraphs ago, I rashly promised something lighter. So here goes. According to the Sun splash, Mary Berry and the BBC are being accused of a “Great British Rip-Off”. This is because Mary’s new cookery show is said by Channel 4 to be too close to the GBBO.

Oh, come off it. Channel 4 poached what had become a BBC institution, and now complains because Mary is doing another show, this time one about home cooking.

The weird thing is that this story has been known about for ages, whereas the Sun claims to have baked it freshly. It was always clear that Mary Berry would be a judge in a show in which contestants donned aprons, so Channel 4 – a station I admire – should go and shove its head in the flour bin.

Must stop now as the devil on my right shoulder has started up a dreadful racket with the devil on my left. The ‘leftie’ usually wins, even if I am at the stage of life when people are supposed to turn into right old devils.


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