Hostile forces define Peter Bingle as a Tory propagandist, property trade PR man and, perhaps most wicked of all, an indulger in decadent lunches. Bingle sees himself more favourably. “One of the most respected and experienced public affairs advisers in the UK,” is how his LinkedIn profile puts it.
Given Bingle’s reputation as a diner, it seemed only right that we met at a restaurant at 1.00 pm. Given his Conservative history, including more than ten years in business with Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign adviser Tim Bell, the London politicians he considers the most able and dynamic may surprise.
For example, there’s “Red” Ken Livingstone when he was London Mayor. “He was easily the best Mayor so far,” Bingle says. “He had a big vision for the city, he worked with developers, he knew everyone that mattered and he worked with them to make things happen. He was a joy to work with.”
Of the capital’s current crop, Bingle picks out Darren Rodwell, leader of the one-party Labour state that is Barking & Dagenham: “The boroughs that deliver have a simple, powerful formula – a political leadership with vision supported by a professional senior management team. We need more Darren Rodwells”.
Most of his favourites these days are Labour, a number of them in the east, which he considers supplies far more than its fair share of London’s new housing. He has high praise for Waltham Forest and for Redbridge and Tower Hamlets. He likes the ambition of Brent and Harrow too, and also Southwark, whose director of regeneration, Stephen Platts, he thinks outstanding. Former Southwark leader Peter John has recently become chairman of Bingle’s company, The Terrapin Group.
Of London’s Conservative administrations, only Wandsworth, where Bingle was one of the party’s councillors from 1982 to 1990 and chaired its housing committee, wins his approval. By contrast, he has Barnet, Bromley and Hillingdon on his “difficult” list.
We discussed the varying diagnoses of London’s housing supply problems and the solutions proposed. The government’s ideas for changing the planning system, which Terrapin specialises in for its clients, have brought parts of the debate into sharper and sometimes revealing focus, with party political lines coming under strain.
For some, including the Labour Party nationally, the Conservatives’ ideas are a “developers charter” which will “deprive communities of power” and fail to address “land-banking”, an issue whose importance is itself sharply contested. And yet, predictably, the government has been facing pressure from Tory MPs who fear the wrath of constituents detecting a threat to their way of life. The by-election loss of Chesham & Amersham in June is brandished as clinching proof.
For others, the Tories’ plans bring hope of release from the grip of such opposition. And it isn’t only the development industry that feels that way. Some campaigners seeking to end house price inflation consider much local opposition to home-building parochial, selfish and unrepresentative – a form of Nimbyism which, in the capital, has been blocking and delayed housing development of every kind, sometimes with the far Left and the most ardent conservationists making common cause.
Bingle has already expressed dismay with Labour’s national stance, taking to task the party’s shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed, whose endeavours when leader of Lambeth he had approved of. He’s also upbraided the government for failing to really champion more house-building, urging Boris Johnson to appoint a “populist” Housing Secretary to “take on the Nimbys” and make a positive case for building more homes.
In Bingle’s view, a lack of serious political will to make the case for greater supply is apparent in all parties and at all levels of government, including in London.
He believes Sadiq Khan’s early introduction of a 35 per cent “affordable” housing threshold, providing an incentive for developers to build that figure into their plans, has been beneficial because it has provided developers with some of the certainty they desire. He also acknowledges that Khan has used his call-in powers, which enable him to over-ride borough decisions on large sites, more often than Johnson did when he was Mayor. However, he would like Khan to use them still more and fears the present Mayor “has no real passion for housing”, notwithstanding his making the most of providing funding for new council homes.
Bingle would like the formal balance of planning powers in London government tipped further away from boroughs and towards City Hall. He thinks borough planning committees in particular are too fearful of vocal opposition groups, enabling “a couple of dozen local people to stop things from going ahead”. His perception is that the use of virtual meetings during the height of the pandemic lessened the power of such objectors, proving his point that they have too much influence on what councillors decide.
The Mayor and Bingle also have very different views about Green Belt land in London. Khan has remained firmly protective of the status quo, including very recently signalling his concern about plans by Labour-run Enfield to build on two bits of its Green Belt territory. Bingle, by contrast, praises the work of Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden, in highlighting the fact that quite a lot of Green Belt land in London really isn’t very green. He’d like to see “all the Outer London boroughs look for some Green Belt land in their areas for redesignation for housing. We all know there are petrol stations and all sorts on it and that it isn’t really green at all.”
Looking into London’s future, Bingle anticipates a tighter contest for the mayoralty in 2024 than in 2016 and 2021. He is among those who detect pressure in Labour circles for a candidate who is a borough leader – rather than “an MP who sees the mayoralty as a good career move” – and female. If those are key criteria, Camden leader Georgia Gould, who is young, personable, politically skilled and chair of London Councils, would stand out, should the job appeal to her.
Bingle recognises this, but also, perhaps with Keir Starmer in mind, describes her as “just another posh middle-class Labour politician from Camden”. He believes if former London Assembly member and Johnson aide James Cleverly, now MP for Braintree, could be persuaded to run for the Tories he would win.
Our lunch ended at just after 2.00. The venue was a burger joint in Old Spitalfields market. And don’t worry – On London paid.
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