Yesterday’s final Prime Minister’s Questions session before today’s local elections saw Rishi Sunak make a substantial claim – that Boris Johnson when Mayor of London built twice as many homes in his first five years at City Hall as Sadiq Khan had in his first term.
Sunak made the identical claim in the House of Commons back in December, specifically that Johnson had built some 60,000 new homes between the financial years 2008/09 and 2012/13, whereas Khan managed just half that number from 2016/17 to 2020/21. Johnson himself asserted on BBC Question Time in 2019 that as Mayor he had “massively out-built Labour”. But is that true?
Comparing mayoral house-building performance is not straightforward, as Inside Housing’s Peter Apps has pointed out in a clinical fact-checking dissection of the Johnson claim. That hasn’t, of course, stopped politicians of all sides indulging in selective claims.
Overall total housebuilding in London, captured in the government’s net additional dwellings data, shows annual output under Khan to have been significantly up on the Johnson era – 36,000 new homes a year on average compared to 26,000 – as Khan himself trumpeted in January.
But many factors can affect construction rates, and while a Mayor’s planning policies and general approach can influence the wider picture – Khan has certainly got behind more building – it is the way City Hall uses its government funding to get affordable homes built that is most relevant.
Here it gets more complicated than grandstanding politicians might wish. There are separate City Hall figures for homes started and homes completed, and the government programmes which provide the vast bulk of cash available to the Mayor for affordable housing do not align with mayoral terms of office. That means a home started under one Mayor may be completed under the next one, who will naturally be inclined to claim credit for it.
And the Mayor’s role in funding affordable housing hasn’t always been as extensive as it is today. Sunak’s claim rests on the 62,000 affordable homes completed in the city between Johnson’s election in 2008 and 2012/13, compared to just under 34,500 in Khan’s first five years. But the problem with Sunak’s figure is that the Mayor was not actually responsible for affordable housing until 2012, when the London element of the national Homes and Communities Agency budget was devolved to City Hall.
Between 2008 and 2012, the national government was in charge. Even after budgets were devolved, much of the cash for 2012 and subsequent years had already been committed – and been provided by the last Labour government. As Apps concluded: “Johnson can only claim to be ahead by counting homes delivered under programmes designed and administered by the central Labour government before devolution of housing budgets in 2012.” Programmes directly designed and managed by Johnson delivered just 6,694 completions, Apps calculates.
What about “starts”? Politicians understandably prefer to talk about completions. “You can’t live in a “start” is a refrain often heard when the London Assembly discusses the Mayor’s affordable housing record. But the Assembly itself as well as Whitehall actually prefer to measure starts (and set annual targets for them) as a more direct way to assess and compare the Mayor’s performance with his predecessor’s.
It’s important to remember that “starts” in the first years of a mayoralty will remain dependent on previous funding arrangements, since there are inevitable lags between cash being awarded and spades in the ground, as there are between starting a home and finishing it.
Taking that into account, Khan’s performance on starts has moved steadily ahead of Johnson’s, reaching a peak of 18,722 in 2021/22, the highest figure since City Hall records began. By the end of Johnson’s term, affordable starts were down to 7,189, and completions stood at 4,881. Khan has also successfully shifted funding towards homes for social rent and Affordable Rent at similar levels and away from shared ownership and Affordable Rent at up to 80 per cent of market rent.
Inside Housing’s 2019 finding was: “Boris Johnson did not massively outbuild Labour as Mayor of London, our fact-checking exercise concludes”. That still stands.
And while trading statistics may be tempting at election time, at the core of the numbers is the reality that annual housebuilding totals are consistently falling short of the 55,000 or so new homes the city actually needs every year, with government funding also falling well short of what is required to meet affordable housing demand.
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