London Assembly constituencies are gigantic entities comprising two or three entire boroughs – and in one case a Corporation too – which can stretch all the way from the boundary of Greater London to its centre. Barnet & Camden does precisely that, encompassing both the pastures of Totteridge Park and the eastern edge of the West End.
That’s why Labour candidate Anne Clarke accompanied Sadiq Khan on his recent visit to an umbrella shop on New Oxford Street. That’s why her Conservative rival, Roberto Weeden-Sanz has been roaming the streets of Golders Green, claiming that Khan’s extended Ultra Low Emission Zone will involve “charging people for going shopping, to work and other daily trips” without mentioning that only the drivers of the most polluting cars will be affected.
Both Clarke and Weeden-Sanz are Barnet councillors. Which of them will move up to City Hall? The answer looks likely to be Clarke. Labour won the seat by comfortable margins in 2016 and 2012, and it will help her that Jeremy Corbyn is no longer Labour leader, that she is regarded as a moderate and that support for Khan and Labour in general in the capital is strong.
The Camden half of the seat is pretty solidly on her side – the borough council has a hefty Labour majority. But at the first three Assembly elections in 2000, 2004 and 2008, the famous – to some, infamous – Conservative Brian Coleman prevailed and the stubborn if marginal Tory grip on Barnet Council, despite its being a Labour target in 2014 and 2018, shows that support for the party at the north end of the Assembly seat remains formidable.
There has been word from the doorstep that Shaun Bailey’s disingenuous talk about an “outer London tax” – his studiously imprecise term for a road-pricing scheme suggested by TfL to a publicly sceptical transport secretary which Londoners wouldn’t have to pay even if it ever happened – is being heard, necessitating frequent rebuttals.
However, Weeden-Sanz might have done himself some harm by failing to take part in a recent online hustings organised by the London Jewish Forum. Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, described the Tory’s non-appearance as “pretty shabby behaviour” in “one of the most Jewish constituencies in the country” and “certainly the most Jewish in the London Assembly”.
The numerical importance of Jewish voters to the outcomes of elections of all kinds in Barnet can be exaggerated – as the Jewish Chronicle pointed out in 2019, they form a minority of the population even in the Barnet parliamentary seat where they are most numerous, Finchley & Golders Green. But as Labour discovered at the 2018 borough elections, when Corbyn-led at the peak of anger about Labour antisemitism, it is a part of the electorate that pays attention to what politicians say and do. Recent Twitter activity suggests Weeden-Sanz might have worked that out.
The hustings addressed antisemitism and several other issues too. The most intriguing was housing, where both Clarke and Weeden-Sanz’s stand-in, Peter Zinkin – a Tory councillor for the same ward Clarke represents – demonstrated the difficult line they have to walk between encouraging more housebuilding to meet heavy demand and not getting on the wrong side of local hostility to development.
“Our priority is to ensure that local communities’ voices are listened to on developments,” said Clarke, “and that we get the sort of development that local communities benefit from but also where people will want to live.” She highlighted a “lack of genuinely affordable and social homes” and said “we also need to stand up to developers” to deter them from proposing “the sort of high density housing that doesn’t work for residents or for the environment”.
She described Barnet’s Conservatives as “very laissez faire about development” and “more on the side of the developers than the local communities,” allowing too much “overdevelopment” while deriving too few affordable homes from new schemes. Labour Camden, she said, has done much better.
The awkward bit for Clarke is that Mayor Khan’s affordable homes drive includes plans for development on Transport for London land in Finchley Central and High Barnet (image of the former above). This has encountered opposition. “I have listened and I have lobbied for changes,” Clarke said and added, pointedly, that Tory Barnet Council had already picked out the areas in question “for intensification”. She dismissed as “a nonsense” local Tories being “suddenly outraged by these plans”. Weeden-Sanz has called them “Sadiq Khan’s plans”. Had he been at the hustings, perhaps he could have explained this alleged double standard.
It fell instead to Zinkin to make the Conservative case. “There is no argument that we need more affordable homes,” he said, but went on to explain that there is “a real tension because one of the ways of getting more affordable homes is building higher, building more densely. And that is not always very popular with the people in the locality”.
Resolving tensions “between the needs of local communities and the needs of the wider community” is part of his job “and it’s really difficult,” he said, candidly. “There are judgments to be made”. On this, he was on common ground with Clarke. However, “there are real differences,” Zinkin said. “Our view as Conservatives is you get the biggest number of affordable homes you can irrespective of the [overall] numbers.”
He correctly characterised the Labour view as setting an “affordable” percentage for affordable homes within developments. His problem with this, he said, is that it “puts developments at risk of being unviable, so they don’t happen at all.” This doesn’t bother Labour, he said, because for them the percentage target is what matters. By contrast, “We believe what matters is not the proportion of homes, but the total number of affordable homes that are built, which means working with developers to achieve that”.
It is, indeed, a fundamental difference. At the same time, the question of resolving that enduring conflict between meeting the demand for more new homes and recognising the misgivings some local people have about them is pertinent to politicians of any party in any part of London – though perhaps particularly so in the Barnet half of Barnet & Camden.
Watch the hustings event in full here.
Read more about Barnet & Camden in On London’s 80-page guide to the 2021 London Mayor and Assembly Elections, written by On London editor Dave Hill and elections expert Lewis Baston. Make a one-time donation of £6 to the website and a copy will be emailed to you. Thanks.