Friday 14 May 2021 6:00 am

Sadiq Khan needs to get real on housing - Londoners deserve it

Tom Spencer is a Young Voices UK contributor and the chief organiser of the London Neoliberals.

After a surprisingly close race, Sadiq Khan has secured another term as Mayor of London. He has promised to rebuild London, post pandemic, and announced big spending plans to bring life back to the capital. Piccadilly Circus now has its very own David Hockney design. But Khan has failed to put forward a coherent policy to tackle the housing crisis. 

London’s dire housing shortage is a source of widespread anxiety. Londoners are scared of being priced out of the city we love. During Khan’s first term, house prices increased faster than incomes, the number of people in temporary accommodation reached the highest numbers since 2006, and the median house price passed £500,000 for the first time in history.

Khan’s first election in 2016 was branded by some a “referendum on housing,” and he won the mayoralty by pledging not to price us out of the city. But the 3,000 council houses he has built since are a drop in the ocean. And while the Government has put forward radical overhauls of planning rules to keep Red Wall voters onside, the Mayor of London has failed to produce his own plan for the capital. 

Khan used the election as a platform to pad out his resumé, telling voters he has constructed more council houses than have been built in any year since 1984—as though that has solved our housing crisis. If Khan truly wants to prevent Londoners from being priced out of the city, he’ll make radical reforms to deliver hundreds of thousands of new houses. 

It’s not impossible—it’s been done before. In the 1930s, there was the largest house building boom London had ever seen, with total new builds climbing to over 80,000 a year. In 2017/18, only 32,000 homes were built in the capital. 

In his manifesto, Khan claimed the solution to this crisis is rent control. And any good economist will tell you that rent control is both damaging to renters like myself and completely impossible to implement.

Even if they could be implemented, rent controls aren’t the help they sound like they’ll be. They merely reduce the incentive for landlords to rent out their properties, leading to a decline in the supply of housing. Indeed, Berlin—the city the administration Khan credits as the example London should follow—has suffered these very consequences. There, the price of unregulated rents has skyrocketed.

But that’s not even the main problem with Khan’s proposal. The Mayor of London’s office has no legal authority to introduce such controls. If Khan wants to implement rent control, he’ll have to get a Parliament to grant him the power. His relationship with Downing Street is in tatters, and he knows the Conservative government would ignore his calls for rent controls. The whole charade is theatre, for the London Mayor, and it is a disservice to the people of London. While he plays out his games with No10, young and disillusioned Londoners are desperately trying to stump up deposits for homes. 

There are ways to fix our housing problems, even if Khan won’t pay them any heed. The start is dropping his dire defence of the Greenbelt. The greenbelt takes up 12 per cent of the total land area of England—London’s Greenbelt is the size of Luxembourg and the criteria for categorising areas as Greenbelt have not been updated since 1955, when they were introduced to restrict the city’s growth.

The Greenbelt is largely agricultural land, producing little to no environmental or aesthetic benefits. We have plenty of schemes to protect the countryside—National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty come to mind. The Greenbelt only serves to make London an unaffordable city to live in and ensures our city remains toxic to Generation Rent. 

A 2015 paper by Tom Papworth, the now-Head of Social Housing Investment Policy at the Ministry of Housing, shows that by freeing up just 3.7 per cent of Greenbelt land within walking distance of a train station, as many as a million new homes could be built. That would come as an unimaginable relief that would be to Londoners?

Greenbelt reform would also help encourage people to use more sustainable forms of transport when commuting and ensure that Londoners aren’t priced out of their city. But Sadiq Khan doesn’t seem likely to ever relinquish his devotion to the Greenbelt. His plans don’t add up to much. Without radical policy reforms, the group of 460,000 people who leave our city each year will grow. Soon enough, I’ll be one of them.

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