1. Governance
December 19, 2016

Sadiq Khan has scored some “quick wins” – but tackling the capital’s housing crisis remains his biggest challenge

By Edward Clarke

Last May, Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London after a decisive victory over his closest rival Zac Goldsmith. That election feels like a long time ago now given the political upheavals that have taken place since – with the vote for Brexit, the formation of a new government under Theresa May, and Donald Trump’s election as US president all signalling huge changes at local, national and international levels.

In the context of that upheaval, how has mayor Khan fared in his first few months? Revisiting the Centre for Cities’ 10 lessons for the new Mayor report, which we published to mark Khan’s election in May, offers some pointers on how to assess his performance thus far. The report set out advice for the new mayor on how he could tackle the big policy challenges he faces, while engaging with wider political developments, based on interviews with leading staff from the previous mayoral administrations. More than six months down the line, three examples in particular have epitomised Khan’s style and intent in the position.

Firstly, his capacity for responding to external events by demonstrating that “London is open”. Just seven weeks in to his first term in office the EU referendum completely shifted the political narrative and priorities of  Khan’s early tenure, moving attention from public transport fare freezes towards getting a fair Brexit deal for Londoners.

Since then, Khan has rarely been seen without a #Londonisopen slogan in-tow, and he has used his informal powers as a figurehead for the city to set the tone and vision for the capital on trips to Paris, Chicago and Canada. In doing so he has distanced his administration from national government, drawing on his considerable mandate to promote London both to Londoners and the world as “entrepreneurial, international, creative, and tolerant”.

Secondly, delivering on his manifesto by introducing the “Hopper” fare. Aside from reacting to external headwinds, the role of the Mayor is primarily one of delivery. With this in mind it was important for Khan – as with all new mayors – to be seen as hitting the ground running.

With his team having held meetings with Transport for London in advance of taking office, one such “quick win” was the introduction of the Hopper Fare, which allows Londoners to make a free second bus journey within an hour of paying £1.50 for their first fare. This was a visible, accessible policy that was quickly implemented, signalling that the mayor was eager and able to get things done within the city. Although it is unlikely to be a defining policy, the advantage of this type of “quick win” is to offer something tangible to voters, while Khan finalises his longer term strategies and plans.

Thirdly, setting a long term vision and expanding the portfolio of the role. The new mayor has been ambitious in setting out his strategic goals for his mayoralty from the start of his time in office. Just as Ken Livingstone reached beyond his formal powers to introduce the Congestion Charge and the Olympics, Khan has been vocal in calling for further powers over the suburban rail network and has reconvened a commission calling for fiscal devolution. In doing so, he has capitalised on public sentiment, acting on both the antipathy towards Network Rail and the concerns of Londoners coming to terms with Brexit.

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So after the first few months, how should Khan’s performance be evaluated? Overall, it has been an encouraging start for the mayor, who has set out a clear vision and – in many aspects – policies to achieve it, as well as hiring an impressive top team to help him realise his intent.

Ultimately, however, the mayor will be judged on how far he has achieved his goals and addressed the city’s needs. More than anything, that will mean tackling London’s housing crisis, which remains not only the top priority for the city, but a major concern for his mayoralty.

Over the next few weeks, Khan is set to publish strategic guidance that will inform the updated London Plan (the mayor’s strategy for spatial development in the Greater London area), but as yet his policies to address the capital’s housing needs remain unconvincing.

To tackle this issue and realise his vision for the city, Khan must make best use of the machinery of London governance – working both with the boroughs and within City Hall – to take the tough choices needed for the capital to continue to thrive despite the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities. This article originally appeared on the think tank’s blog.

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