Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly, specialising in housing policy. He is also a recently-elected Lewisham councillor. This is his first, very welcome, piece for On London. Tom tweets here.
Last week, Boris Johnson turned his attention from women’s attire to housing. The £250,000 “chicken feed” salary he reportedly earns for his Daily Telegraph column wouldn’t buy you a one bedroom flat in most of London, but it has bought lucky readers the opinion of the former Mayor on how to fix the housing crisis he spent eight years presiding over.
It’s telling that in a 1,000 word article Johnson barely mentions his own track record on the issue. What he lacks in self-awareness he certainly makes up for in chutzpah, but his words still betrayed his enduring indifference to his own failures to address London’s housing crisis during his City Hall tenure. His column’s headline advocated “kicking the developers”, but in reality, as Mayor, Johnson largely allowed them to get their own way.
Probably the most egregious example of this was in 2014 when he backed Royal Mail’s proposals for the Mount Pleasant sorting office site, taking over the planning decision before Camden and Islington Councils had even had a chance to consider the application. A mere 24% of the housing approved by Johnson was “affordable”. Royal Mail went on to sell the site at a 565% mark up to developer Taylor Wimpey for £193 million.
Johnson’s column favourably referenced the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, approved by him with just 12% affordable housing, which Wandsworth Council subsequently allowed the developer to reduce to 9%. In fact, Johnson’s record on affordable housing was so poor that in his last year in office he oversaw planning permissions that granted only 13% affordable homes.
By way of contrast, his successor as Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has used his planning powers to “call in” and increase the number of affordable homes on schemes across London. These include Hale Wharf in Tottenham, where he quadrupled the level of affordable housing from 9% to 35%, and a scheme in Hounslow where he has upped provision from 40% to 49%. It just goes to show the difference that’s made by having a Mayor who uses the powers of the office for good rather than evil.
Johnson’s grandstanding call “to hold the knout over these developers” is thoroughly disingenuous in light of his previous trenchant criticisms of other politicians who have expressed the same desire. He condemns “landbanking” as a strategy to “keep prices high”, but in the past has described the potential legislative measures to tackle it proposed by then Labour leader Ed Miliband as “Mugabe-style expropriations”. Has Johnson had an epiphany about the unfair and unsustainable power dynamic between developers and buyers? I doubt it.
To add to the list of contradictions in his column, after acknowledging that the “the problem is affordability” he almost immediately attacked the current Mayor Khan over his insisting on quotas for affordable housing on each development. The truth is that Sadiq has been forced to pick up the pieces of his predecessor’s failures. Boris Johnson left the cupboard empty on his departure, having funded no new social homes for the next mayoral term. Despite inheriting this uphill struggle, in the last year Sadiq oversaw a record number of affordable home starts – more in any single year since housing was devolved to City Hall.
If the former foreign secretary intends to make a useful intervention on housing, it would be a good start if he pressed his own government over its dire record on social house building and its refusal to lift the regressive borrowing cap placed on councils, and urged it to devolve the extra £2 billion a year London needs to satisfy its demand for genuinely affordable homes.
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