Interview: Deputy Mayor for Housing Tom Copley on why London deserves greater devolution

Interview: Deputy Mayor for Housing Tom Copley on why London deserves greater devolution

Sadiq Khan’s recent announcement that the government’s target for getting affordable homes started has been hit is, according to his deputy for housing and residential development, not only a credit to the Mayor but also an argument for greater devolution of powers from Whitehall to London government.

Tom Copley, a former Labour London Assembly member who began doing his present job in early 2020, believes the success with affordable homes programme funding secured from the government was allocated and building work got underway has demonstrated the ability of City Hall, London’s housing associations and London’s boroughs to work together effectively. Why not, then, give the capital’s regional and local authorities more freedom to do even better?

“Having local relationships has been hugely beneficial with housing associations and with councils,” Copley says. He refers both to those formed by Greater London Authority officer colleagues and his own. “The relationships I have with either the housing associations – chief executives and senior leaders – and with the leaders of London’s councils have helped us to drive forward development and to solve problems as we get there”.

He draws a contrast between how the Khan administration has distributed its first programme funding – £4.8 billion provided in two portions between 2016 and 2018 – and the approach of national housing and regeneration body Homes England, citing in particular his and the Mayor’s enthusiasm for new council homes.

Finance for the boroughs was dealt with through the bespoke Building Council Homes for Londoners prospectus published in May 2018. The 23,000 council dwellings started since then, many of which have also been completed, have been strongly promoted by the Mayor – who, famously, was brought up in a council house – as a flagship achievement.

“It is a marked departure and difference from the rest of the country,” Copley says. “We gave higher grant rates per unit to councils, reflecting the fact that they were getting back into the business of housing delivery after several decades of not being able to”. He also picks out the Mayor’s right to buy back scheme (“unique to London”) and, looking forward, mentions the £4 million Land for Councils Homes Revenue Fund, which has helped 12 boroughs so far, “which is going to help them get out into the land market and find more land to build on”.

Copley thinks the way Mayor Khan has been using his existing powers “builds the case for further powers to be devolved”. He stresses that the sums negotiated with the government came with a lot of conditions attached, including about what categories of “affordable” dwellings they could be put towards. “It’s not as though we’ve got total freedom within the devolved settlement that we’ve currently got”.

A second affordable homes programme, providing £4 billion for 2021-2026, is now underway. Needless to say, Copley would like a lot more money from the government – work for the GLA by Savills concluded that £4.9 billion is required every year between 2023/24 and 2027/28 to meet need. But an ideal, much bolder, devolution arrangement give help City Hall greater freedom to make the most of the resources at its disposal.

“The biggest prize of all is fiscal devolution,” Copley says, and refers to the findings of the London Finance Commission, a group of experts initially brought together by Boris Johnson early in his second term as Mayor and reconvened, again chaired by Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, by his Labour successor.

The commission has proposed that more control over all property taxes raised in London – council tax, stamp duty, business rates and so on – is handed down to London government, including, as it puts it in its 2017 update, powers to “set rates, revalue bands and offer discounts”, hold “periodic revaluations” of the domestic taxes and the devolution of “100 per cent of business rates” (see annex 4).

Movement has been modest. When the commission’s first report was published in May 2013, Johnson endorsed its findings though Copley is quick to observe that he seemed to forget about all that as soon as he was firmly installed at Number 10.

Under Rishi Sunak, City Hall is finding Michael Gove a more amenable secretary of state to work with than any of Johnson’s changing cast of housing ministers, notwithstanding the current PM’s repeated misrepresentation of Johnson’s affordable housing record. But it goes without saying that Copley hopes for far better things if, by the end of next year, Khan has been re-elected for a third mayoral term and Keir Starmer has become Prime Minister (and he extends that wish to Mayors elsewhere).

If put into full effect, the LFC’s ideas would not give London a larger share of the national tax pie but, crucially, far more self-determination in relation to the slice it gets. That, for Copley, would be a huge gain, and not only in relation to housing. He argues that if London was clearly in a position to raise at least half the money needed to, for example, extend the Bakerloo line, “it would make it easier to go to the government for the remainder”.

Specifically on housing, Copley thinks “there’s always going to be a need for some grant from central government” but he would relish being able to “raise much more of the funding we need for housing from some sort of devolved fiscal settlement”. The Mayor and his team also would like to have much greater command of skills training in the capital, helping to better marry qualifications with jobs vacancies including in the construction sector, and, with energy costs and climate change in mind, in relation to retrofitting and upgrading domestic properties.

The GLA has administered the Warmer Homes Programme, but, says Copley, “we don’t have the capital funding or the powers to deliver a deep retrofit programme”. He calls London’s housing stock “some of the oldest and draughtiest in the country” and says the retrofitting needed is not “deliverable through the private sector or through private individuals”. Put the cash at London’s disposal, however, and things could be very different he thinks, including by influencing the extremely hard choices many housing associations are having to make between “bulldozing housing because it is very energy inefficient and very costly to upgrade” and retrofitting instead.

Other mayoral aspirations for housing include what Copley calls “a sort of Ofsted-style regime for housing associations” to monitor standards and a possible City Hall housing delivery operation to go alongside, rather than compete with, existing providers. He concludes: “We’ve proved we can deliver with the powers and responsibilities we’ve already got. The government should devolve more powers and responsibilities so we can make these decisions by ourselves. As you know, we are one of the most centralised democracies in the world. In terms of the outcomes, I don’t think we are the better for it.”

Twitter: Tom Copley, Dave Hill, On London.

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