Interview: Tom Copley – Labour’s housing champion at City Hall

Interview: Tom Copley – Labour’s housing champion at City Hall

London Assembly Members don’t receive much praise or attention and maybe some don’t deserve to. But few who are familiar with his efforts at City Hall would disagree that Labour’s Tom Copley is one of the 25 AMs who does. First elected to the scrutiny body in 2012, a few days before his 27th birthday – the youngest AM there has been – he has made a particular mark as a specialist in housing issues, harassing Boris Johnson, nudging Sadiq Khan and publishing strong research on the effects of permitted development, austerity’s impacts on the homeless and, perhaps most importantly, the consequences of Right to Buy for the capital’s housing stock.

Copley was elected to the Assembly again in 2016, but could be at risk of missing out next year as a result of changes to the process for selecting Labour Assembly candidates. Unlike nine of his 11 Labour colleagues, Copley does not represent any of the 14 Greater London Authority constituencies, but has been elected to one of the 11 Assembly seats filled through a complex form of proportional representation with the bracing name of “modified d’Hondt”.

Each party enters a list of candidates for these seats. The higher up the list the candidate is, the better his or her chance of getting elected. Copley was fourth on Labour’s list in 2012 and just scraped in. He recalls becoming emotional at the news and being gently removed from the vicinity of Ken Livingstone, who had just lost a mayoral race to Johnson for the second time: “They said, ‘If Ken sees you crying he’ll start crying too’.” In 2016, candidate Copley was promoted to second place. Only three “list” candidates got seats for Labour that time, emphasising the importance of a high position on the list.

In the past, a selection panel has decided that position. But for 2020, the ordering of the list will be determined by the votes of party members. Under the previous system, Copley’s record at City Hall would surely have secured him a top two placing. Under the new one, the outcome is far less predictable. Labour colleagues and others who have worked with him sincerely hope he will continue to have a home at City Hall after the elections next May.

One of those colleagues has characterised him as “independent Left”, a label Copley himself is happy with and, given his dislike of the conformity Labour factionalism can demand, appropriate. “I genuinely think all strands of opinion in the Labour Party have something to contribute,” he says. “I would like to get to a point where there is more of a conversation about policy and the way forward, rather than these never ending arguments”.

In the past, Copley has expressed disquiet about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In hindsight, he says his contributions were “not particularly constructive or helpful”, though he still thinks the lack of clarity and front bench unity over Brexit “catastrophic”. At the same time, he likes what he calls “the leftward shift in domestic policy” under Corbyn and would like it to be still more overt in “going after the wealthy”. His most recent housing report called for a complete end to Right to Buy, a stance that makes Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto position look equivocal. Copley is also an advocate of a Land Value Tax, wishing Labour would make the imaginative leap required to join him.

His Labour and Left wing background is varied. Born in Stockport, brought up in Buxton (“picturesque, bleak”) until the age of six and then in Salisbury (“nice, pretty”), he studied politics at Nottingham University, where Philip Cowley, now professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London (and a contributor to On London), was his tutor. Two years into his course, Copley and a friend took their chance to work for the then MP for Nottingham North, Graham Allen. This was Copley’s introduction to living in London, where, he says, “I’d wanted to live ever since I knew what London was”. His first dwelling place was Battersea. His university friend was Alex Norris, who succeeded Allen as Nottingham North MP in 2017.

After completing his degree, Copley spent a month in Edinburgh, performing in a musical production of Through The Looking Glass. He maintains his interest in theatre as a board member of Camden’s New Diorama theatre and, as a member of the Assembly’s economy committee, he compiled a 2013 report called Centre Stage, about supporting small theatres in the capital. Mayor Johnson, to his credit, set up a grant scheme for small theatres as a result. Settling in Camden, Copley found a niche as a political organiser, including for his now fellow AM Nicky Gavron. He worked for Camden Labour, including for Frank Dobson when he was MP for Holborn & St Pancras. In 2010, Copley fought an election for the first time, narrowly failing to win a Haverstock ward seat in a contest delayed by the death of a Liberal Democrat candidate.

A spell working for Hope Not Hate, the campaign group opposed to fascism and racism, gives him particular pride. There were “a few quite rough experiences”, including the “quite terrifying” one of being cornered by a bunch of English Defence League thugs at Grays station in Essex upon arriving with the intention of leafleting against the BNP. He is modest about his role with Hope Not Hate – “I was only the tea boy” – but an International Brigade flag adorns his City Hall desk. “In times like these it’s important to keep that flame burning,” he says.

Copley is realistic about the limits on AMs’ powers, but also clear and serious about the privileges and scope of the position. “It’s a great platform. You question the Mayor ten times a year [at Mayor’s Question Time] and it’s a great opportunity to hold them, to some degree, accountable. You get access to the media and you do your own research on your own projects. You have great resource here at City Hall and that means you can pursue an agenda”.

Hard graft and careful judgements are required: “The foremost thing is holding the Mayor to account, and that doesn’t just mean when the Mayor is from a different party from yours. It’s the job you’re paid to do. You’ve got to be very well briefed. You’ve got to ask for the right briefings. You’ve got to ask the right questions. That is absolutely fundamental. And the only way you’re going ask the right questions is if you’ve done your reading.”

Copley speaks highly of Mayor Khan, who he regards as having done well in adverse circumstances, not least having Conservatives in charge of national government: he anticipates the Johnson one, assuming it lasts that long, increasingly trying to undermine him as the 2020 London Mayor election draws nearer. He approves of the fares freeze and the Hopper bus fare, and is delighted that the Mayor secured funds from the government to invest in council house building programmes and also found a way, through the contrivance of London Affordable Rent, “to bring social housing back through the back door”.

He regards the adoption of residents approving estate regeneration schemes by way of a ballot as a condition for receiving mayoral funds a step forward that he helped bring about – the requirement was initially absent from Khan’s important good practice guide. This position, he says, puts him at odds with some of his friends in local government, though he defends them against “this terrible picture painted by certain groups that they are evil people who want to destroy communities. Labour councillors want better existing housing, more social housing and better community facilities. Those are great intentions.”

Copley is also enthusiastic about mayoral proposals to government for provide him with private sector rent control powers. Now a renter in Lewisham (and, since 2018, a councillor there too), Copley has rented privately all his London life, sharing with friends until quite recently, so he knows all about high rents and variable conditions. He also recognises the potential pitfalls of rent control, having been deputy chair of the Assembly housing committee when it commissioned research which spelled these out. But he thinks the Mayor’s ideas would lead to a system “that will make renting more affordable without leading to a mass exodus of landlords”. He’d like to see “a managed decline of buy-to-let” combined with a much bigger social housing programme.

Where would the new homes go? A simple question, but hard to answer. “There are three options, essentially,” Copley says. “You can build tall, which is unpopular and, I would argue, not great for residential. You can use existing brownfield sites, but with that you need the government to change compulsory purchase rules so that councils can buy car parks and certain industrial land and flip it over to housing without having to compensate the landowner for the increase in land value. And you can regenerate estates, though that is fraught with difficulty, because you are often knocking down people’s homes. That should really only be a last resort.”

At this point, Copley commits “the heresy” of advocating carefully controlled building on selected parts of London’s Green Belt – something Mayor Khan has always firmly ruled out. “I think the Green Belt concept is very useful for helping to curb urban sprawl, but there are car parks in Barking & Dagenham and car showrooms in Bromley that are built on the Green Belt,” he says. “But if it’s poor quality Green Belt that’s near public transport nodes, I don’t see what the problem is.”

Copley wears a few other hats too. He is a patron of LGBT Labour and on the board of Humanists UK, which he regards as entirely consistent with being a socialist, though he reveals, with amusement, that fellow humanist AMs Andrew Boff (Conservative) and Sian Berry (Green) are equally convinced that their memberships align precisely with the values of their respective parties.

Where did his politics come from? From centre-left parents who encouraged him to keep up with the news and from seeing childhood peers climbing on board a bus to take them to the local secondary modern while his bus conveyed him to grammar school. And then there were the private school kids sailing by in large cars, “basically tanks”. To the young Tom Copley, all that just seemed wrong. The same instinct drives his work at City Hall.

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Categories: Analysis

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