1. Environmental
September 28, 2017

Can Sadiq Khan really take on London's housing crisis?

By Letitia McKie

With the launch of his draft Housing Strategy last month Sadiq Khan has ostensibly generated fresh hope for Londoners in need of an affordable home.

After triumphantly panning Boris’s controversial Garden Bridge, Sadiq has unveiled his plans for delivering what most Londoners want much much more than a fancy new park over the river – nice homes they can actually afford to live in.

He certainly seems to be off to a good start after securing £3.1billion of government funding to invest in 90,000 affordable homes by 2021.

Not only that, but he has spent most of the summer on a steamroller-style campaign announcing idea after idea to improve the housing market.

His schemes include a fast tracked planning system for affordable homes and a new team of top architects including Sir David Adjaye, who will act as design advocates deployed to aid struggling council planning departments.

There is so much activity, in fact, that we’re wondering if it all might be too good to be true. Can any of this stuff really give Londoners the housing market of their dreams?

Enjoying a spot of his favourite pastime – Boris-bashing – at the housing strategy launch last week, Khan said: “You won’t see any vanity projects from me”.

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Boris clearly let himself in for this after spending his time as mayor in a variety of well-publicised inglorious pursuits including selling off 99% of City Hall-owned land to the highest bidder.

The artist formerly known as Garden Bridge. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

He justified this by the pledge to produce 100,000 affordable homes as part of new commercial real estate but he only achieved it with a highly contested definition of what actually counts as affordable.

Sadiq has gleefully jumped on this by inserting the word “genuinely” into the strategy. But his own definition is just as slippery, with a vague promise included in his plans “to set clear tests”.

His £250million investment in finding ways to release land for new development genuinely doesn’t look like vanity. The money appears intended to find real ways to provide affordable homes and social housing by diversifying the market, and goes hand in hand with a pledge to give more support to councils, housing associations and small builders whose ability to build at all has been brutally eroded since the 1980s.

Crucially, unlike Boris, he doesn’t appear to be obsessed with selling off land to developers in exchange for a few less expensive units.

Boris Johnson, while Mayor of London. Image: BackBoris2012 Campaign.

He might have watered down his campaign pledge to make new housing developments 50% affordable, but he is showing strength in other ways by blocking schemes, like New Scotland Yard, that don’t try hard enough to incorporate them.

We shouldn’t let Sadiq convince us he’s implementing a wrecking ball style policy change however. Many existing and potential initiatives, such as enabling councils greater borrowing power and imposing council tax hikes for empty dwellings, are survivors from the Boris era.

Khan has been criticised for chasing headlines and making fake boasts claiming credit for existing schemes to boost his credibility.

But when it comes to solving London’s housing crisis, the only question we should be asking is: will any of it actually work?

Inevitably, the strategy is full of less convincing, blue-sky promises to lobby government for more money and power.

It frequently reads like a wish list, with Sadiq promising to tackle every issue from sustainability to fairer rents; replacing right to buy properties like-for-like to tackling homelessness and the construction industry skills gap.

This is less a housing strategy than a 236-page prayer to the heavens for deliverance.

Sadiq has other wild ideas including, as Jonn Elledge pointed out in the Guardian, to cash in on Stamp Duty Land Tax using the revenue from the recent increase to build new homes.

It’s potentially genius, as the £3.4billion returns would double Sadiq’s spending pot, but the cynics among us may laugh wryly at the notion of the Treasury devolving so much funding to City Hall.

A highly orchestrated summer of spin on this topic has made Sadiq appear like our long-awaited housing crisis saviour, which is disingenuous to put it lightly.

London’s housing problems of supply and affordability date back to the 19th century. The current issues have grown incrementally from shortage to crisis over the 30 years since Right to Buy, for much of which there was no central London authority after the abolition of the GLA’s predecessor, the Greater London Council.

The influencing factors, from fiscal and planning policy to the impact of the 2008 crash and now Brexit, mean the problems and the powers needed to provide the solutions go far beyond the scope of one London mayor.

However idealistic his pleas are, Sadiq is right to say that City Hall needs more of that power.

Without real influence, his strategy is another shiny document that will need to be rewritten in four years.

Let’s hope we’re not saying the same thing then. 

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