Interview: Andrew Charalambous

Andrew-Charalambous-THUMBSomewhere between the superfood salad, the invitation to an eco-friendly King’s Cross club night and tales of living with the Dayak tribe in Borneo, it becomes clear that this isn’t the interview one might expect. In a trendy North London hotel, over faintly warbling chart music, the United Kingdom Independence Party’s housing spokesman is running through his blueprint for a more ethical property industry.

Seasoned UKIP-watchers used to hearing of a stream of blunders, gaffes, and faux-pas might have expected something different. But Andrew Charalambous, the son of Greek Orthodox parents, a minority activist and a self-described pro-immigration, part-time politician, seems well placed to counter at least some of those prejudices.

A barrister, developer, spiritualist and nightclub-owner, he signed up to the Tory roster aged 14 and became one of the youngest Conservative parliamentary candidates by running in Tottenham in 1992, coming second to Labour. He was again the runner-up in Edmonton in 2010, before defecting to UKIP in 2011. He is now weighing up a possible bid for a Cambridgeshire seat in 2015, and has been quietly overseeing the development of UKIP’s stance on property into a package of policies. Crucially, he does have a housing policy. And, in common with much of this interview, it is not what you might expect.

Independent of ideology
For Charalambous, independence – be that from Brussels or dictatorial party superiors – is the name of the game. He swapped blue for purple because he was frustrated with the top-down discipline of the main parties, as well as their combative politics and the career politicians who ignore their constituents. “UKIP doesn’t restrict itself through ideology,” he says. “It’s a political entity where people can be independent-minded. We don’t just come from an ideological perspective where we assume the free market on its own can do everything, or that government can do everything. It’s refreshing.” Instead, he says, many of the party’s ideas come from discussions with the rank-and-file membership.
It is clear that Charalambous prizes his individuality – after all, his highly spiritual website is called the Free Thinking Zone – and he accepts that not everyone in the party agrees with his views on housing.

But if UKIP affords its members freedom of thought, it has also left some of its more controversial members open to criticism and ridicule.

Not that the voters seem to care. Four months out from the general election, UKIP has scored successes in both the European and local elections and gained its first two MPs. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom is considering categorising UKIP as the fourth “major party”; while the latest YouGov/Sunday Times poll places the party’s share of the vote at 18%.

The pigeonholing of the party is obviously frustrating for Charalambous – an avowed internationalist with business interests from Sardinia to Greece. He is quick to spell out early on and unprompted that his party is “anti any kind of racism”. He then adds that, in terms of property specifically, if the industry found it hard to take the party seriously at first, he believes it is now increasingly finding itself in agreement with UKIP policy.

A developer himself, it is environmental and conservation work – rather than nimbyism – that is the driving force behind Charalambous’s politics and his staunch defence of the green belt. He describes tackling homelessness as his “personal passion”, adding that the property world needs more of a social conscience.

In his own “several-hundred”-strong residential portfolio, Charalambous –dubbed “Dr Earth” by some in the press – does not charge his tenants deposits and administration fees and does not seek references, in order to provide homes for ex-servicemen and the homeless (and yes, that includes large numbers of immigrants).

Behind all this is Charalambous’s inner social entrepreneur.  “Property developers will pursue margins and are entitled to do so. But we don’t have a shortage of housing per se, just a shortage of affordable housing. We don’t want a property system that serves a few and excludes the many.”

This view is translated into workable proposals through a far more substantive raft of housing and planning policies than might be assumed (see box). Some of these fit with the caricature of the UKIP voter as a party for rural zealots, such as forthright opposition to HS2 and a jealous defence of the green belt. “We wouldn’t concede an inch of the countryside to development,” he says.

But this is backed by a meaty policy package for making better use of existing space that includes providing interest-free refurbishment loans to landlords if they grant a 20% discount on leases, and a council tax waiver on landlords bringing long-term empty properties back to market.

So while it protects the green belt, UKIP boasts a brownfield policy notable for its detail – providing grants for decontamination assessment, removing VAT and stamp duty from brownfield conversions, and creating a brownfield agency and register.

Other views are more unexpected. UKIP wants to become a champion of tenants’ rights and direct democracy, creating new medium-term tenancies of between three and 10 years and making commonhold mandatory for all new developments larger than 20 flats – although it stops short of Labour’s rent regulation proposals.
Furthermore, it wants binding local referenda on major developments to stop “big business, local activists and planning bureaucrats” monopolising the planning system. “Why can’t people make the choice as to what kind of developments they want in the area they have to live in? Developers should have to convince local communities. We trust people to realise there’s a need for residential and commercial developments that create jobs,” he says.

Pro-development policies range from re-establishing the right to buy (with the receipts put back into social housing), boosting grant funding for house building, broadening permitted development rights and replacing council estates with greener, higher-density social housing.

All about Europe
But surely some of the branding of UKIP as a single-issue party is justified? The party’s raison d’être is to get people talking about Europe. What are Charalambous’s views on this, given that it is a topic that seems to strike fear into the heart of the property world? JLL has already warned that even uncertainty surrounding a referendum on the subject would hit the investment market.

“We’re always going to trade with Europe,” he counters. “The Germans aren’t going to stop selling us Mercedes because we’re not in the EU.” As for the instability triggered by leaving the EU, UKIP thinks being tied down to the bureaucracy and regulation of a contracting European market is more damaging, and that non-EU investors will continue to be attracted by the UK’s legal system and its strong currency.

“The majority of property investment is not coming from Europe. We want to show we’re open to business with the world. Change opens new horizons and new possibilities for British property developers to go way beyond Europe to look at bigger markets.”

But what of the all-important occupier market, built upon the fluid movement of labour around the Continent? And doesn’t the son of and landlord to immigrants feel hypocritical when arguing against free movement? “We don’t have a single policy in which we should send anybody back,” he says in a tone that suggests this isn’t the first time he has had to stress the point. “Immigration is a positive thing. It’s the planning for immigration. While we remain in the EU, how can we know what the population level is going to be in five years? How can we plan for the number of homes and public services we’ll need? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that.”

If you’re struggling to understand the ideology that links these policies together, it may be because there isn’t one. Charalambous prides himself on being a pragmatist. But with his passion for the green belt and concerns for tenants’ rights, what is his response to the idea that he sounds like a politician from the far left?

“If we refuse to transcend party politics, strong party discipline and the three-line-whip system, it’s very hard to see how we’re going to find solutions to things like the housing crisis,” is his reply.

The colourful Charalambous defies preconceptions. If it wasn’t for a lapel pin advocating recognition of St George’s Day as a national holiday, he wouldn’t seem out of place handing out pamphlets for the Greens in Brighton.

And it could be that kind of broad appeal that has the other parties so worried.