Anya Martin: The candidates for Mayor have no solutions to London’s housing problems

Anya Martin: The candidates for Mayor have no solutions to London’s housing problems

With the average monthly private sector rent in London topping £1,400, renters are feeling the pinch. London has the dubious honour of being one of the worst cities in the world for housing affordability. The city’s major issue is its consistent failure to build enough homes to meet even its own unambitious housing supply targets.

Its growth outwards is artificially constrained by the Green Belt. This would be better described as an “urban containment zone” as, contrary to what its name suggests, it is not an environmental designation or even necessarily green. And London’s growth upwards is constrained by a sclerotic, unpredictable planning system, where almost every significant development becomes a political battleground. The mayoral candidates are faced with the prickly problem of how to address this.

Unfortunately, they are disappointing all round.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan is almost certain to win, which makes his weak offer all the more depressing. Khan’s main promise has been rent controls. This is quite a remarkable choice, as London Mayors have no power to introduce them – it is a national legislative issue. Khan would have to convince a Conservative government to give him that power – something they are highly unlikely to do.

It is rather cynical for Khan to propose a policy he knows he can’t implement. Presumably he will blame central government when rents fail to come down over his tenure. It is even more cynical when he ignores the powers he does have: Khan has taken a hardline stance on Green Belt release, and has been rebuked by planning inspectors in the past for ignoring the “inescapable conclusion“that it must be reviewed.

Where he does acknowledge the need to build, Khan focuses on council homes. His manifesto boasts that he has built more than in any year since 1984. While true, it ignores the pertinent fact that most social housing is built by housing associations, not councils, so the boast is actually about moving from virtually no council homes to just a few thousand. That is some way off addressing the scale of the crisis, and at least in part due to national government policy removing funding restrictions on council housebuilding anyway.

Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate, focuses on homeownership and promises 100,000 homes for £100,000 each. In a city where the average first-time buyer’s deposit exceeds that price, you might find this hard to believe. And you’d be right, because a cursory inspection reveals Bailey actually means that he will develop 100,000 Shared Ownership homes, of which you will be able to buy a  £100,000 share. The remainder you will pay rent on, in addition to service charges.

This is no different form the scheme as it already exists in London – one famously riddled with problems. The only difference is that Bailey says he will build more of them. He does not even try to explain how he will fund or enable this. And Tory has spent much of his campaign endorsing NIMBY campaigns across the city, so some scepticism is reasonable.

Similarly to Khan, Green Party candidate Siân Berry focuses on promises that aren’t within the Mayor’s current remit, like evictions, housing benefit, and, like him, rent controls. Her manifesto does not address the systemic issues of land release or planning. In fact, Berry dedicates an entire page of her manifesto to preservation of the Green Belt, with no recognition of its impact on our total failure to build enough homes.

Liberal Democrat Luisa Porritt doesn’t address the systemic problems either, but does suggest converting offices that are left empty into flats. This is not a bad idea in itself. But central government has already taken steps to make such conversions possible, with more in the pipeline. And like the others, Porritt fails to address the broader problems.

Interestingly, all of the major candidates expressed an interest in setting up a City Hall-owned property development company. There’s nothing wrong with this idea: it could help to bring forward public land, and having a range of developers in the market means healthy competition. But it does raise the question of whether said property developer will encounter the same problems that all the others do: land values massively inflated by artificial constraints like the Green Belt, a broken planning system, and NIMBY backlashes.

So, a call to action. The mayoral candidates should state:

  • How many homes will they build in total.
  • What tenures will those homes be.
  • Where will those homes be built and how will they counter local resistance.
  • How will they fund their affordable housing plans within the existing budget levels, or how will they secure additional funding.
  • Which policies will ensure these homes are brought forward.

Until then, it’s more of the same for London’s beleaguered renters.

Anya Martin is director of PricedOut, England’s campaign for housing affordability. PricedOut calls for action from government to build more homes and reduce the cost of decent housing.

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