On 5 May 2016, Londoners will vote for new members of the London Assembly and, most importantly, the next Mayor of London, to succeed Boris Johnson. Unsurprisingly, housing, planning and, broadly speaking, the built environment have been the main topics of discussion during mayoral hustings and in the press in the last few months, with all the mayoral contenders focusing on setting out various strategies and plans to tackle the current housing crisis.The Labour Party’s mayoral candidate is Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting since 2005 and former Minister of State, Department for Transport (2009-2010). In his 82-page long electoral Manifesto (A Manifesto for all Londoners), housing is clearly identified as his top priority:‘We need to build more homes (more than 50,000 new homes a year), including more genuinely affordable homes for Londoners, and fewer gold bricks for overseas investors.’
Genuinely affordable homes for Londoners
To effectively tackle the housing crisis, Khan pledges to ‘building thousands more homes for Londoners each year, setting an ambitious target of 50% of new homes being genuinely affordable, and getting a better deal for renters’. The backbone of his housing strategy is the setting up of Homes for Londoners, a new City Hall team that will be in charge of building ‘the genuinely affordable homes London needs’, including:
Homes for social rent, supporting councils and housing associations in delivery;
Homes for London Living Rent, where rent is to be based on one-third of average local wages;
Homes for first-time buyers to ‘part-buy part-rent’, to be developed on mayoral and other public land, giving Londoners (who have rented for over 5 years) ‘first dibs’;
Homes to buy, building on brownfield public land and once again, giving Londoners ‘first dibs’.
This rather ambitious housing plan, while interesting in the way it uses different housing tenures for different needs, stands in sharp contrast to the government definition of affordable housing (and the intention to include starter homes in the National Planning Policy Framework’s affordable housing definition), as set out in Khan’s Manifesto itself. In case of election, this is likely to be a point of sharp debate between the Greater London Authority and national government.
Devolution powers and local alliances
Another pledge that is likely to create some friction between the Greater London Authority and national government relates to Khan’s intention to call for more devolution powers, including:
powers for councils to invest in new homes for Londoners;
prudential borrowing powers for councils to invest in new affordable housing, and the major taking the lead in developing public land;
‘use it or lose it’ powers to avoid land-bank on sites where planning permission has been granted.
The release of mayoral, TfL and other public sector land is seen as the keystone to addressing genuinely affordable housing needs. This goes hand in hand with the intention of creating an alliance with ‘all of those with a stake in building new homes for Londoners’, meaning councils, housing associations, developers, home-builders, investors, businesses, residents organisations; this housing partnership would be in charge of developing a unified voice to make requests to Central Government to ease the difficulties of building enough new homes in London.
The role of businesses and transport for housing
Interestingly, the first housing measure mentioned in Khan’s Manifesto (in the 1st chapter ‘business, prosperity and opportunity’) refers to the involvement of businesses in solving the housing crisis, by ‘exploring incentives for businesses to provide investment in new homes which could benefit their workforce’. The accent on creating mixed communities, able to combine housing and working needs, is stressed in other parts of the Manifesto, promising to:
‘promote the provision of small businesses and start-up premises in housing and commercial development through the London Plan’
‘provide live-work units as part of the Mayor’s affordable housing programme’
‘set up Creative Enterprise Zones, providing dedicated small workspace with live in space so that creative industries, artists and the fashion industry are given extra support to flourish’
Building on his previous experience (as he highlights in the document) as UK Transport Minister, Sadiq Khan acknowledges the importance of taking a long term view on future transport needs by ‘making sure that the plans deliver the highest possible gains in terms of new homes for Londoners.’ He pledges to secure Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo line extension (to Lewisham and beyond) and London Overground extensions, as well as new river crossings in the East; he also pledges to ‘plan the next major infrastructure projects’ such a potential Crossrail 3, new orbital links for outer London, DLR and tram extensions.However, there are very few measures that relate transport improvements to the potential for delivering additional housing; this point stands in sharp contrast to his main contender, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith - his housing strategy is largely based on securing ‘the transport links we need to make private sector land more accessible’.
The not-so-risky planning choices and the role of local authorities
On other headline matters, such as airport expansion and the Green Belt, Sadiq Khan’s position is not surprising; he opposes a third runway at Heathrow and supports Gatwick as ‘a more viable, cheaper and easier-to-build alternative’ (he has also said he will review Boris Johnson’s decision on London City Airport). On the Green Belt, his position is to oppose building on it (as do all the other mayoral contenders), since it ‘is even more important today than it was when it was created’.Working with councils, as a way of dealing with an array of matters, is underlined in several parts of Khan’s Manifesto. This collaboration will stop ‘the excessive conversion of commercial space under permitted development rights’, will guarantee ‘greater transparency around viability assessments’ and will bring ‘empty homes back into use, using compulsory purchase orders where necessary’. On the other hand, the labour candidate aims to set clear guidelines for the mayoral ‘call-in’ power, including where planning has stalled and/or where opportunities to deliver more new or affordable homes are being missed.
An extensive (and conflictual) housing programme
In conclusion, Khan’s intentions on election are surely ambitious in trying to tackle the housing crisis through different strategies (some more convincing than others). If he is voted in as Mayor, the success or otherwise of his Manifesto pledges will be dependent on:
the ability to raise funds, both from central government and from private investors, to guarantee the viability of some of the above-mentioned proposals;
effectively dealing with a national government that is not on the same page on some of the core pledges of his Manifesto (not least, the definition of affordable housing);
gathering different stakeholders around the same table, to work collectively in addressing a crisis that is beyond each stakeholder’s control;
the capacity to give certainty to the housebuilding industry; and, on top of everything else
the effectiveness of the proposed measures in doubling the current house building rate (roughly 25,000 homes per annum).
The questions and uncertainties arising from Khan’s Manifesto promises are neither few nor easy to answer; if he were to be elected, early implementation of as many as possible would make all the difference between eye-catching political announcements and effective policy measures.