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London council considers seizing Russian oligarchs’ homes for affordable housing

The Guardian has reported that this is part of a push to “combat the capital’s reputation as the European centre for money laundering”

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Neil FetherstonhaughSunday World

A London council is considering using compulsory purchase orders to seize homes owned by Russian oligarchs’ homes for affordable housing.

Westminster city council is reportedly targeting homes in the richest parts of London in a bid to crack down on oligarchs using Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Mayfair “to rinse their money”.

The Guardian has reported that this is part of a push to “combat the capital’s reputation as the European centre for money laundering”.

Despite obstacles including a lack of transparency over property ownership and a shortage of checks on the registration of companies, the council is threatening to use seized homes to help reduce the waiting list for affordable housing of 4,000 households.

The number of properties in Westminster registered to owners in Jersey and Russia has risen by 300% and 1,200% respectively since 2010, the Guardian reports.

And according to researchers at Transparency International UK (TIUK), Russians accused of corruption or of links to the Kremlin have bought property worth nearly £430m in Westminster since 2016 – more than in any other UK area.

It is believed that property worth about £283m has been purchased in neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea.

The leader of Westminster council Adam Hug has been quoted as saying: “Westminster’s dirty secret has been known for many years, but those in power looked the other way for too long as money of questionable origin flooded into London and investors took advantage of our relatively lax laws.

“It took the war in Ukraine to refocus attention on oligarch investments and what London has become in terms of a European laundromat for dirty money.”

He said the problem went further than “[Vladimir] Putin and his henchmen”, and that it damages London’s reputation by supporting authoritarianism abroad. Hug added that it “drains the vitality of areas with empty or underused homes”.

Rose Zussman, policy manager at TIUK, said it was “no secret” that kleptocrats and those with money to hide have invested vast sums into the Westminster property market over the years.

“It is promising to see the council seeking to help expose and recover these illicit assets,” he said.

But she said any funds reclaimed that are linked to corruption should go back to victims in the origin state “to ensure justice is served”.

Hug is also convening a meeting of property owners, experts and officials in the capital to join the “Westminster against dirty money” campaign and is calling on the government to restrict the artificial use of tax havens, and increase funding for the National Crime Agency and HMRC to fight money laundering.

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