Ten years after

Making the case for London has been complicated during the pandemic. It risks conflict with the ‘metropolitan elite’ myths so fondly fostered by government (and so ably skewered by my former colleague Jack Brown on Monday’s Start the Week). And, like many civic leaders, Sadiq Khan has been trying to tell a story of devastating impact to a seemingly indifferent government, but also to entice workers and tourists back into a renascent capital by reminding them of all London has to offer.

The pandemic has indeed had a particularly brutal impact on London’s citizens and economy, but recent figures suggest that the tide may be beginning to turn. Tube and bus ridership is higher than any time since March 2020, though still up to 50 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Google mobility data also shows a slight return to central London, though more for retail and recreation than for work (which accords with higher public transport use at weekends).

And, according to the latest ONS figures, London’s unemployment rate has also dropped, falling from 7.5 per cent in the three months to January, to 6.5 per cent in the three months to April. Unemployment is still higher than any other region’s, London boroughs still have some of the highest claimant counts and furlough rates in the country, and the economic impact of coronavirus has hit specific demographic groups hardest, but there are glimmers of hope.

So, it’s worth looking back to the last recession and recovery when London has hit hardest but recovered fastest. Could history repeat itself? As the chart below shows, London’s unemployment rate rose sharply ten years ago, and was more than two points higher than the UK’s in mid-2011, but then fell much more quickly, roughly tracking the national rate from 2014. A similar gap opened up last year, but has begun to narrow since January.

Unfortunately for London there were specific features of the 2011/12 recovery that favoured the capital. Quantitative easing, Government’s response to the financial crisis, diverted investment into booming equity and housing markets. And the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games may have had a minimal direct impact on spending (most of the construction was complete by 2012, and Olympic Games years displace normal tourism expenditure), but were a powerful showcase for the UK internationally, and for London in particular.

Added to this, ten years ago, Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London) was keen to make the case for the capital, and able to persuade the Coalition Government that starving London of cash was no way to help the rest of the country, so projects such as Crossrail and the Olympic Park legacy development went ahead.

None of these factors are present today. Rather than being boosted by cheap money, financial services have been sidelined in Brexit negotiations in favour of more picturesque and politically salient (but far less productive) industries like fisheries. Big infrastructure projects, such as the redevelopment of Euston Station for HS2, are being squeezed, hopes of a swift return to international travel are receding, and the narrative of ‘levelling up’ looks pretty hostile to London and its nine million citizens.

At the G7 Summit last weekend, Boris Johnson warned against repeating the mistakes of the ten years ago, when (as he didn’t quite say) austerity extended and deepened the impact of the recession for many people and places. This is right, but the correct lesson is to extend support wherever it is needed to ‘level up’ the prosperity and life chances of citizens and communities, not to stall the UK’s economic engine in pursuit of headlines or electoral advantage.

Now is time for a TfL deal

Transport for London (TfL) is the seat of the Mayor of London’s most significant power and responsibility. Welded together in 2000 from an assortment of public corporations, government agencies and joint committees, TfL spends more than £10 billion every year and employs more than 25,000 people. While London’s Mayor is underpowered in many respects, their control of this integrated transport authority is envied by many other cities in the UK and beyond.

Right now, transport is also Sadiq Khan’s biggest headache and biggest priority. TfL’s revenues collapsed during the pandemic, as passengers stayed home, and the network has only been saved from bankruptcy by government support packages, repeatedly agreed at the last minute and accompanied by terms and conditions that have nibbled away at the Mayor’s authority.

The latest support package is due to expire on 18 May, so the next cliff-edge is approaching fast. TfL have been arguing for a longer-term settlement, and their scenario planning predicts suppressed income till 2024/25 in almost any conceivable future. With neither mayoral or general elections scheduled till 2024, and the pandemic in what we all hope is irreversible retreat, obstacles towards striking a longer-term deal should now be surmountable.

Doing the right deal will require radical thinking from the mayor and government alike. Pushed to find new sources of funding for infrastructure investment as well as operations, Sadiq Khan has argued that TfL should receive the £500 million that Londoners pay in vehicle excise duty (VED), which is currently ring-fenced to pay for road repairs outside the capital. Alternatively, there have been discussions of a charge for people driving into London from outside.

Neither proposal bears much scrutiny: the VED settlement is indeed unfair to London, but is a declining revenue source, and allocating more to London would mean allocating less outside the capital (or government making up the balance). A boundary charge would be another way of making those who live outside the capital pay towards the services that they use, but would likely have a negative effect on people living and working around the edge of London, and could generate more hostility to the capital at a time when it needs support and visitors.

A more equitable approach would be London-wide road user charging, to replace the increasingly complex hierarchy of charging zones and fees, as recommended in Centre for London’s 2019 report, Green Light. A pay-by-the-mile scheme, which reflected congestion, pollution and the availability of public transport alternatives, could raise substantial sums. For example, an average charge of 5p/mile for cars and light goods vehicles, and 50p/mile for HGVs, could raise as much as £1.5 billion every year – twice as much as is currently raised by the congestion charge.

Such a scheme would also make policy sense. It creates incentives for lower carbon transport options, rather than using public transport revenues to cross-subsidise highways maintenance, as is currently the case. The Green and Lib Dem candidates both argued the case for road user charging during the mayoral election campaign, but Sadiq Khan was more cautious, committing only to “ask TfL to consider other ways of raising income to make up for the loss of VED” if the Government refuses to pay up. And you can see why – the politics of restrictions on car use have become a hot button issue in this election. But now, at the beginning of a three-year term, is the time to make the case for bolder action.

But if transport funding is the elephant sat solidly in Sadiq Khan’s in-tray, it should have at least one foot planted in Government’s. Under a deal negotiated with Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor, central government grant support for TfL was phased out, with business rates and fares plugging the gap. All very well when London’s economy was booming, but even the most optimistic scenarios see business rate revenues and fares alike suppressed in the short- to medium-term.

London’s transport system could be allowed to decline, and this is one the scenarios explored by TfL, but this would be a hugely retrograde step, which would deal a substantial blow to the capital’s chances of recovery and of achieving zero carbon targets, and to tax revenues from London supporting public services across the country.

Government knows this, so they know how costly it could be to starve London’s transport system of resources. If the Mayor can show he has the vision to transform London’s public transport funding model, the Government should make available the funding to support him during an economic crisis that has hit London particularly hard.

[First published by Centre for London, 10 May 2021]

Book Review: Red Metropolis by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley’s book springs from an honourable impulse – to rescue London from lazy stereotyping as an elitist hothouse of privilege, distant from the more authentic social and economic struggles of the northern cities. He aims to rekindle pride in London’s rich heritage as a radical trailblazer of social progress, and for the most part he succeeds.

Hatherley’s previous books have covered everything from the ersatz urbanism of Blair-era ‘regeneration’ projects, to the communist architecture of eastern Europe, to the commodified nostalgia of Cameron’s austerity years. Most recently he has focused his gaze on London (he is also editor of the fascinating Alternative Guide to the London Boroughs, published by Open House last year). A self-described communist, Hatherley began writing Red Metropolis in December 2019, and describes the book as an “attempt to write myself out of the feeling of numb horror” caused by Labour’s defeat in that month’s general election.

Red Metropolis is a work in three acts, focusing in particular on London’s perennial housing crisis and on public housing, one area of social welfare that has consistently had a local dimension. The first part traces the history of London County Council (LCC) from the messy politics and patchy administration of the late 19th Century to 1965, the second records the ascendancy of the New Left in the Greater London Council of the 1980s, the third looks (sorrowfully) at the record of the three mayors of London since 2000. 

The LCC took over from the unelected Metropolitan Board of Works in 1889, and for nearly twenty years, under a shifting “progressive” leadership comprising liberals and various left groups that would later merge into the Labour Party, was a pioneer of municipal socialism. Directly employed labourers built council housing in the Boundary and Millbank estates, which Hatherley praises for their “high-quality materials, urbanity and spaciousness”, and the LCC’s borough allies (including Battersea, where John Archer, the first Black mayor of a borough, was elected in 1913) built smaller-scale schemes such as the Latchmere Estate. 

The Progressive alliance faltered and the Conservatives dominated the LCC for the next 25 years, but by the 1920s, the Labour Party had begun to build a power base (particularly in the “Five Red Boroughs” – Battersea, Bermondsey, Deptford, Poplar and Woolwich). In 1922, Poplar councillors, led by George Lansbury withheld rates from the LCC in order to fund social programmes, arguing that it was “Better to Break the Law than to Break the Poor”. Thirty were briefly jailed in an episode which is a precursor to the 1980s rate-setting protests and the legal challenges to the GLC’s “Fares Fair” policy.

Poplarism stirred up persistent debates within the Labour Party between advocates of constitutional change and those seeking more direct action. Herbert Morrison, who dominated the London Labour Party from the 1920s, and led the LCC from 1934 to 1940, was a vociferous opponent of the latter approach. Morrison has been a controversial figure in left politics, at times criticised (like his grandson Peter Mandelson) for his focus on “electability”, but also for his model of ‘bureaucratic nationalisation’, with professional managers in control rather than workers themselves. 

Hatherley is more generous in his assessment. Even though 1950s schemes such as the Alton Estate are more to his taste architecturally than the “staid and stiff brick tenements” of the 1930s, he argues that Morrison prefigured the post-war settlement by offering free healthcare, building housing, schools and parks, and by establishing London’s own nationalised transport board, and also praises the sometimes-maligned Abercrombie plans that were developed in the heat of the War. Like Robert Moses in New York, Morrison remade his city, and made plenty of enemies along the way.

LCC puritanism – they built estates without pubs and Morrison wanted lidos closed at night to stop “people fucking in them” –was roundly rejected by the “New Left” leadership of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. Hatherley brings to life the carnivalesque egalitarianism of County Hall under Ken Livingstone, its corporate wood-panelled corridors thronging with punks, Rastafarians, gay rights activists, artists, radical feminists and communards. One of the ironies of the past 30 years is how the anti-racist and gay rights campaigns led by the GLC, which led to vitriolic tabloid attacks at the time, have become entirely mainstream, while its economic programmes, such as the “People’s Plans” for reindustrialisation of London’s docks, look positively quaint.

The importance attached by the New Left to community-based politics and participation above all things led, Hatherley argues, to its rejection of Morrisonian housebuilding programmes. Partly as a result of this and partly because the city was still depopulating through the early to mid-1980s, the Livingstone-era GLC built little housing and what it did build was often “twee and flimsy” – pockets of suburban semis that can still be seen dotted around inner London. The antipathy towards grand schemes led to renowned architects such as Neave Brown in Camden and Ted Hollamby in Lambeth being pushed out of their local authority jobs. (In another nice irony, the communist Hollamby went on to work at London Docklands Development Corporation, the epitome of Thatcherite laissez-faire urban policy).

Despite this, Hatherley sees the GLC’s record as a “social democratic Paris Commune” as a guiding light for the Corbynista left in 2015-19: “so successful was it that London’s governing body had to be abolished out of existence.” But he identifies a wider legacy too: the GLC’s focus on cultural policy was foundational to London’s 21st Century character, and its abolition in 1986 alongside the ‘Big Bang’ of financial services deregulation, helped define the politics and economics of London today. 

Hatherley is less impressed with – and I think less fair to – the three Mayors in City Hall since 2000. He gives Ken Livingstone and Sadiq Khan some credit, for transport projects and policies in particular, but excoriates all three for their failure to tackle London’s housing crisis. In particular he sees them as in thrall to a faustian pact with private sector developers to build affordable housing through Section 106 agreements, designed to mitigate the impacts of new development and to reflect the value created by the grant of planning permission. This approach, he argues, has fanned London’s red-hot property market, encouraged speculation by landlords, and widened inequality in the capital.

The narrative is powerful, but some details are smudged. Hatherley writes that Livingstone failed to define what “affordable housing” meant; but the 2004 London Plan gives broad definitions, and supplementary guidance published in 2005 goes into some detail in defining “social”, “intermediate” and “low cost market” housing, and specifying in what proportions these should be built. He says that the 2012 Olympics resulted in more social housing being lost than was built; but even the social housing provision in the Olympic Village (around 700 homes), exceeds the number that were lost at Clays Lane, the housing co-op that was demolished on the north of the site. And he damns Sadiq Khan’s efforts with faint praise, saying there has been “some encouragement” of councils to build housing; but Mayors need to agree affordable housing funding with national government and Khan has allocated £1 billion of the capital grants he has secured to councils to build 11,000 social rented homes.

But these and a few others are errors of detail. The central accusation stands, against the local government leaders who did deals with private developers as well as against the three Mayors themselves. In recent years the “cross subsidy model” of affordable housing provision, which has also been adopted by councils themselves as well as housing associations, has come in for increasing criticism: it requires rising prices to work, so fuels the pressures that it seeks to address, and creates an industry of opaque and gameable viability assessments. 

What else could the Mayors have done? Housing was explicitly excluded from their functions until 2007 (the GLA was designed to have minimal overlap with borough powers), and control over capital grants for affordable housing was only handed over in 2011. Restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow against their rent rolls in order to build have also only been relaxed in recent years. Hatherley reports Alex Salmond suggesting that Ken Livingstone should have demanded the right to charge more Council Tax on the wealthy to build more social housing, but the right to reform Council Tax was in the Scottish Parliament’s gift from the outset. It was never on the table for London. Two reports from the London Finance Commission, under Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan respectively, have sought more powers over property taxes for London but been studiously ignored.

The approach of the mayoral administrations could also do with some interregnal context. The abolition of the GLC (and other metropolitan counties) came near the high point of conflict between central and local government. As Thatcher was replaced by Major, more centrist borough leaders such as Haringey’s Toby Harris built consensus with businesses and across party lines – until 1995, there were separate membership organisations for Conservative and Labour boroughs. The 2000 version of Ken Livingstone was as much part of this détente as John Major and Tony Blair were. Even bust-ups such as the London Underground public private partnership were about the nature of private sector involvement in the running of the Tube, not the principle of it.

Red Metropolis is an informative, lively and punchy read, at once optimistic about London’s possibilities and angry at its realities. Hatherley brings to it his perceptive and humane architectural sense (equally damning of both the “chilly Piranesian grandeur” of County Hall and the “grub-like” City Hall), an ear for a quote, and an eye for the curiosities and ironies of London’s evolution. The captions under artless urban photographs (by the author and Daniel Trilling) provide a wry running commentary on the text, and on the persistent gaps between rhetoric and reality.

Hatherley closes by observing that, unlike the 1980s when the left captured Labour municipalities across the country but remained shut out from the commanding heights of the party, the Corbyn years saw the party’s leadership shift sharply to the left, without this being reflected in councils, which generally continued to be run by pragmatic/compromised (delete to taste) centrists. Even those, such as Haringey and Newham, that saw leadership changes during the “Momentum years” have failed to implement the Poplarist programmes that Hatherley would like to see. 

The final pages argue, uncontroversially, for more devolution, for decentralisation of government and for more openness to international examples, as well as for an end to growth and a more confrontational attitude towards central government. He believes that London government can acquire powers by staking claims – “Better Break the Law than Break the Poor” still. This is a high-risk strategy, though it did recently work when Mayor Boris Johnson decided to sack the Metropolitan Police Commissioner without the power to do so or reference to the Labour Home Secretary.

Red Metropolis is a salutary reminder of the sense of possibility that can and should infuse London politics, despite the conflicts and compromises that governing a city of nine million people involve. If London is in Henry James’ words “only magnificent”, this magnificence is partly the result of the striving and the strife so well described in this book.

[First published in OnLondon, 8 February 2021]

Good advices?

 [First published in Local Government Chronicle, 24 November 2020]

Choosing the right advisors is one of the most important decisions that political leaders make, as recent Downing Street dramas have illustrated. This is perhaps particularly true for the mayor of London, who unlike the prime minister or a council leader does not have the support of a party group, but only the watchful eye of a scrutinising London Assembly.

So, alongside City Hall’s expert staff, mayors need mates; their own people who can advise and represent them in such a huge city. The mayor of London can bring in 12 appointees, and the ways in which the three mayors to date have appointed and worked with their teams have been indicative both of their strengths and their weaknesses – as detailed in London’s Mayor at 20, a collection of essays, analyses and interviews looking back over the past two decades of the capital’s mayoralty.

When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, he came with a gang of advisors who had worked with him for many years – from the Greater London Council, from activism since then, from his parliamentary office. Most had worked with him when he had decided to run as an independent following Labour’s bungled attempt to fix candidate selection. Within weeks of his election, Ken had advertised posts as ‘policy advisors’, and many of these were filled by familiar faces.

The team were all broadly from the political left, albeit from different denominations; Simon Fletcher, Ken’s chief of staff and former parliamentary researcher, brokered agreement on priorities and positioning. The mayor used to describe advisors such as Neale Coleman, John Ross, Jude Woodward and Lee Jasper as being like ministers – with full authority to represent his views. The team was consistent through Ken’s two terms, with the mayor showing loyalty (and damaging his 2008 re-election campaign) when advisors became embroiled in newspaper allegations of cronyism.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Johnson had no deep roots in London politics, and had only been an MP since 2001. There was no gang waiting in the wings when the ebullient loner was elected in 2008. Nick Boles, then Conservative MP for Grantham and founder of the Policy Exchange thinktank, worked with the new mayor to appoint deputy mayors.

The initial tranche proved shaky: one was prosecuted for fiddling expenses, another was found to have fabricated his CV, and a third senior advisor made comments on race issues that led to swift resignation. Tim Parker – a corporate restructuring guru appointed as chief of staff and first deputy mayor – left when it became clear that there wasn’t the scope or appetite for the application of his specialised skill set, and that Boris wanted to take decisions as mayor rather than acting as a media-friendly figurehead.

Other appointments were more stable, some becoming long-term Johnson allies. Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for culture and education, followed Johnson to Downing Street, as did chief of staff Eddie Lister, who is now temporarily filling the same role at 10 Downing Street. Lister, and Simon Milton the former Westminster City Council leader who preceded him at City Hall, took a relatively light-touch approach to policy co-ordination, leaving other deputy mayors, such as Stephen Greenhalgh, Kit Malthouse and Isabel Dedring, with space to develop policy positions, but also giving a looser sense of direction than under Livingstone.

If Sadiq Khan drew one lesson from Boris’s wobbly transition, it was not to make appointments too quickly. His deputy mayors were appointed painstakingly over his first six months in office. Senior local government figures such as James Murray and Jules Pipe, former mayor of Hackney, were appointed alongside former GLA officials Justine Simons and Shirley Rodrigues, and external figures such as human rights barrister Matthew Ryder, shadow transport minister Heidi Alexander and former Home Office special advisor Sophie Linden.

These appointments have been carefully judged, but the deputies are not close to Sadiq and his decision-making in the way that Ken’s were, or eventually Boris’s became. Less prominent are the inner circle of advisors who agree policy positioning: chief of staff David Bellamy, director of policy Nick Bowes, and communications and external affairs directors Leah Kreitzman, Paddy Hennessy and Jack Stenner.

The London mayoralty is an unusual role: it can be a springboard or a dead-end; it suits loners and mavericks, but requires constant coalition-building; it gives extensive powers of patronage and appointment, alongside singular accountability. It is a job to which the incumbent is elected alone, but not one which any mayor could hope to carry out alone. Appointing advisors and deputies is an early but critical decision, requiring trust and judgement. For a political loner like Boris Johnson it is a fraught business, and one that has given him a rocky start both as mayor of London and as prime minister.

City Hall – from glass testicle to white elephant

 [First published by OnLondon, 3 November 2020]

 So farewell then, City Hall.

I remember a conversation in early 2000, soon after I started working in the “transition team” that set up the Greater London Authority (GLA). We didn’t have a Mayor of London yet, but – as I explained loudly to someone in a noisy nightclub – I just really, really wanted to work in City Hall, the sloping glass blob by Tower Bridge that has housed the GLA for the past 18 years. On the site of Pickle Herring Street’s warehouses and wharves, looking north to London’s commercial heartland and east to the capital’s future, City Hall would be a very modern HQ for a very modern strategic authority.

While these shiny new headquarters were being built, London’s new Mayor and Assembly spent their first two years in Westminster’s Romney House, a former hotel that had been requisitioned by the government during World War II, and had served as a dumping ground for departmental detritus since then (and has now been converted into flats). Then, after a formal opening on 23 July 2002 by the Queen (“Your new building, which is so clearly based on ideas of openness and accessibility, will provide an exciting forum for Londoners as your debates ebb and flow”), we moved in.

Openness and accessibility may have been part of Foster and Partners’ design (alongside the government’s instruction to keep a cap on the new Authority’s staff numbers), but these features fell from favour in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Risk assessments were quickly undertaken and an awkward metal detector arch installed by the reception desk. The need to pass through this quickly killed off the idea of citizens being able to drift in from the sunken Scoop outside (which looked like it was purpose build for the skateboarders who security guards so assiduously chased away) into the lower ground floor café.

Security also killed off the rather romantic notion of the ramp above the Assembly Chamber, a slighter echo of Berlin’s Reichstag dome (designed by the same architects and completed in 1999), as a vantage point for citizens to watch new civic democracy in action. Not only was this quickly written off as dangerous (on account of angry firefighters, taxi-drivers and pigeon-feed sellers as much as terrorists), but walking on the ramp was so clattery that even GLA officers were banned from it during meetings.

The Chamber itself is a fine lofty room, which has been used in The Apprentice, for politics programmes and in James Bond films. But with the dead air of the ramp above it, the space it occupies is out of all proportion to its use. Monthly questions to the Mayor attract a smattering of journalists and school children, but other committee meetings are rarely that well attended.

And the real debates and decisions do not take place in the Assembly, but in the Mayor of London’s office (and the offices of his advisors) under the sloping glass eaves of the eighth floor. Ken Livingstone, who had derided the designs as a “glass testicle”, insisted on individual offices for his advisors “for all the plotting they need to do”.

Assembly members had individual offices too, but all staff – from the chief executive down – were in open plan desks arranged around the edge of the building, all uniformly grey to avoid any contrast with the bright yellow walls that the architects had chosen for the building’s core, to enhance the night-time profile it projected over the Thames. Meeting rooms with minimal natural light were clustered around the other side of the core, or buried in the even gloomier basement.

But for all its flaws – from leaking panes of glass and draughty entrance lobby, to the hassle of never knowing whether you would be waiting 15 minutes at security – City Hall had a public face: the lower ground floor café offered the opportunity to bump into the Mayor, Assembly members, GLA staffers, borough leaders and anyone else involved in policy in London. London’s Living Room, on the top floor, is a panoramic party venue – surrounded by a balcony with views over Tower Bridge, the City of London, and the sweeping railways and estates of Southwark. And though the building was clunky and cheaply-finished, it did feel like a place of power.

It is hard to argue with the £60m savings that will be realised by moving the GLA to The Crystal, an equally idiosyncratic building in the Royal Docks, or with the potential to accelerate redevelopment of one of East London’s most complex but isolated locations. But it is also hard not to worry that the move will diminish the GLA, making it just a little more marginal to the lives of Londoners.

London’s unfinished devolution

 [Published by Centre for London, 3 July 2020]

Twenty years ago today, Ken Livingstone formally took on his powers as London’s first directly-elected mayor. His election had been a moment of high political drama rare in municipal government. Having legislated for a mayor and assembly in London, Tony Blair’s New Labour government had watched in horror as Livingstone – in their eyes a throwback to the 1980s ‘loony left’ – swerved all attempts to prevent his election, eventually running and winning as an independent against Labour’s Frank Dobson and the Conservatives’ Steven Norris.

The transfer of powers (unlike his successors, he had a two-month running-in period) was a much quieter event, despite the new Mayor declaring that it would be celebrated as “London’s independence day”, the occasion of the UK’s capital seizing back control of its affairs from the “most centralised state outside North Korea” (a favourite comparator).

Livingstone is no stranger to hyperbole, and his claim was probably not intended entirely seriously. The powers that he took on were limited and had been hard-fought by civil servants as the idea of a mayoralty took shape after the 1997 general election. Furthermore, London’s first mayor was denied control of London Underground while government struggled to finalise its disastrous ‘public private partnership’ scheme through 2000 and 2001.

But the powers were nonetheless significant: oversight of London’s police and fire services, a veto on major planning decisions, control of traffic lights, major roads, buses and (in due course) London Underground, and a new agency to manage European and domestic economic development projects. And all were drawn down from central government, rather than seized from London’s 33 local authorities who had repeatedly clashed with the Greater London Council, precursor to the mayor and assembly, in the 1980s.

Since 2000, London’s three mayors have shown themselves to be able advocates for the capital, leaders at times of crisis, and promoters of projects and policies that would have been impossible in the 1990s – from congestion charging, to London 2012, to cycle hire schemes. Their powers have been extended too, with affordable housing programmes, more extensive planning powers and stronger police oversight introduced through reforms in 2007 and 2011.

However, despite the extension of the mayoral model to other English cities in recent years and promises of a white paper, the advance of devolution appears to have stalled in the nation’s capital. The government’s recent interventions on transport and planning could even be seen as a rollback, as a former Mayor of London seeking to exert remote control over his successor.

But these interventions also highlight the flaws of the current system. Transport for London’s revenue base is so dependent on fares that government bailouts become inevitable during a shock like COVID-19, and a government that blocks mayoral plans to accommodate growth, without supporting any form of regional planning, is simply incoherent.

Recovering from the current crisis cannot be directed from Cabinet Office briefing rooms, or by despatching civil servants across the country to implement centrally determined policy. It will require agile and locally-appropriate measures across the country, from training programmes to targeted tax breaks. There are a thousand daily issues pressing on government right now, from infection monitoring to trade talks, so ministers do not have the time to micromanage planning policy and transport services, any more than they have the competence to do so.

Completing this unfinished devolution should begin with a discussion about money. The Mayor of London has extremely limited powers to vary council tax, and no powers over business rates or other property taxes. London’s shops and other commercial premises are taxed heavily while its richest householders pay some of the lowest property taxes in the world. This dysfunctional set up might be sustainable in boom times, but it could hobble the capital’s recovery in the tougher times that lie ahead. Responsibility for services without the power to set taxes makes for inefficient government and fudged accountability.

London’s mayoralty has proven itself to be a success over its first 20 years; it is time to take the next steps in loosening Whitehall’s grip on the capital and its finances.

Centre for London and LSE’s Professor Tony Travers are working on a book to mark the 20th anniversary of London’s mayor and assembly, investigating the relative successes and challenges of the mayoralty to date, before asking what comes next for London. The book will be published in winter 2020.

Time for some conscious uncoupling of London\’s Green Belt

[First published in Estates Gazette, 1 November 2019)]

Tackling the housing crisis was top of Sadiq Khan’s policy agenda in 2016. So, with the next mayoral election six months away, the publication of the planning inspectors’ report into the mayor’s draft London Plan – the blueprint for London’s growth – is a big moment.

There is some good news for City Hall in the report, published last week. The inspectors back the mayor’s plan as a whole, his assessment of housing need and also his affordable housing policies – including the threshold approach to fast-track permission, which they say is “appearing to bear fruit”.

But the report does challenge the mayor’s assessment of housing capacity, and in particular his expectation that small sites could supply 25,000 of the 65,000 homes planned each year. As the inspectors acknowledge, this would require a 250% increase in building on small sites in outer London boroughs – the very locations where dense development can provoke the most furious rows among neighbours, politicians and community groups. “Whilst the policy approach is aspirational,” the inspectors conclude, “its delivery is not realistic.”

They recommend halving the small sites target to 12,000 homes a year, giving an overall housing target of 52,000 a year. Given that London is projected to need 66,000 homes a year, of which 55,000 are simply to keep up with population growth (the rest being to deal with the backlog of need), this would leave London with a worsening housing shortage. The gap looks even wider if you use the government’s new calculations of need, which come up with an annual figure of 72,000 homes.

This may all seem a bit moot when London is only building around 30,000 homes a year, but balancing need and capacity is a foundation stone of town planning. The inspectors reject the Sisyphean suggestion – made by former secretary of state James Brokenshire what seems like a political aeon ago – that the plan should be immediately reviewed. Instead, they recommend that the mayor should lead a strategic review of London’s green belt, in the light of the projected shortfall of land for housing (and industrial uses).

This presents the mayor with a dilemma. His commitment to tackling London’s housing crisis is matched only by his commitment to preserving London’s green belt. And you can see why. Green belt reviews are popular among planners and policy wonks, but toxic for the general public; recent polling shows that opposition to building on or reviewing the green belt is as strong as ever.

All of which may suggest that it would be a “bold” politician (in the Yes Minister sense of the word) who agreed to lead a green belt review in what may be a multiple election year. Positions are entrenched, and debates about the green belt can be as fervent – and as futile – as debates about Brexit. But there is an opportunity here too: the mayor could bring light where there is currently just heat, and show that elected mayors can take the lead where governments freeze like marginal-seated rabbits in the headlights.

A review, in partnership with councils and communities, would be an opportunity to discuss the green belt’s role as a constraint on sprawl, for public recreation and as habitat, and to consider how different land uses meet these aims – rather than defending the green belt as sacrosanct in principle while allowing it to be nibbled away and leap-frogged in practice.

It could explore different options for change, from allowing building in railway station catchment areas to planning and building urban extensions, as exemplars of “good growth” rather than incoherent and exclusive car-based suburbs. It could consider how to substitute for any green space lost, and how to enhance the quality and accessibility of what remains.

The inspectors’ report suggests that, having grown by 30% in three decades, London is starting to strain against its boundaries. It feels like the moment for an open and rational debate about how the next 30 years’ growth can be environmentally responsible and socially inclusive. The next mayor of London – whoever that is – should lead this debate.

Better rent (May 2019)

[Published on Centre for London blog, 23 May 2019]
In our world of clone towns, megabrands and oligopolies, we understandably venerate the small business, the sole trader or micro chain. Renting somewhere to live may be an exception. If smaller doesn’t mean better, could larger landlords help pacify London’s wild west rental market?

Private renting is heavily dominated by smaller operators: a 2016 UK-wide survey found that more than 50 per cent of rented homes were owned by landlords with three properties or fewer. Most small landlords are not professionals: they may have put spare cash into rental property to generate retirement income, or have retained homes as they have moved up ‘the housing ladder’, or in some cases may be owning and letting out property in one place, while themselves being renters in another.

Not all small landlords are rogues, but many have a bad reputation for good reason. Landlords and letting agents are blamed for shoddy conditions and delayed repairs, for inflated charges and deposits withheld without good reason, for taking advantage of ‘no fault’ evictions to change tenants and boost rents every year. In a landlord’s market, many of these practices are consequence-free – there’s no corporate reputation to defend, and unhappy tenants have limited recourse apart from moving on; there’s always someone ready to take their place.

Against this backdrop, the arrival in London of professional ‘Build to Rent’ landlords, who build flats, and let them directly to private renters, should be good news. Build to Rent landlords are professionals. They have corporate reputations to consider, and actively market their properties on the basis of the quality of accommodation and of the service that they can provide (albeit at a price).
Recent estimates suggested that around 50,000 Build to Rent apartments have been built or given planning permission since 2009. Their developers are an interesting mix: they include joint ventures, housing associations, traditional commercial developers, and institutional investors looking for long-term financial returns.

The Build to Rent sector only accounts for around five per cent of the one million private sector rentals in London, but the numbers are steadily growing. (Calculated from Housing in London 2018 tables.)

The sector may even be starting to have an impact on rental levels. Rental growth has slowed in recent years. Government data cited in the most recent edition of Centre for London’s quarterly The London Intelligence showed that rents are now static, having shot up from the end of 2010 to early 2017. Figures compiled from a Dataloft survey of new lettings tell a subtly different story. These figures show rents continuing to grow, with larger properties showing the fastest growth and one-bed flats showing the slowest.

Rival explanations for the deceleration of rent increases include suggestions that lower international migration levels are having an impact on demand, as well as arguments that recent completions are leading to a moment of over-supply – particularly of flats – before the market slowdown puts the dampers on new development.

But could the growth in Build to Rent have helped too? Many Build to Rent landlords offer three-year tenancies, with index-linked rent increases, as standard. Even if rents catch up with the market as a whole at the end of three years, these new tenancies could be helping to damp down growth right now. They may also explain the difference between continuing growth in rents for new lettings, and a more subdued picture overall.

This market moderation comes – whether by coincidence or not – just as the issue of rent control is rising back up the agenda. While government backed off proposals for minimum three year tenancies last year, it has proposed abolishing ‘no fault’ evictions. This may partly be in response to Mayor of London Sadiq Khan suggesting that rent control could be a key plank of his re-election campaign – though this would still require government support through legislation.

Build to Rent landlords say that heavy handed rent control will simply kill off their business model. They already struggle to make schemes stack up, they say, competing for land against developers building for sale, who can afford to pay 30 per cent more for land.  Removing their ability to charge what the market can afford in rent will push scheme viability even deeper underwater.

But ‘rent control’ can take a number of forms, from formal setting of private rents, to simply index-linking rises during the course of longer tenancies. If more and more Build to Rent property is offered on the basis of three-year tenancies with index-linked rent rises, the sector may be able to offer a self-regulation solution. This may not tackle all the issues of affordability in London’s rental market, but could forestall the need for legislation, sidestep parliamentary battles, and sustain sense in London’s rental market without stifling a sector that is just finding its feet.

5 ways mayors have changed London (Nov 2018)

[Originally published on Centre for London blog, 7 November 2018]

This year, the London Mayoralty turns 18 years old and ‘comes of age’. During this time, London’s three Mayors – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have used the limited levers that they had – sometimes to breaking point –  to improve the city.

But what impact have they actually had? Here’s five ways that the Mayors have transformed our city since the Mayoralty was established.

1. Leading London’s urban renaissance

The London Plan, as adapted and evolved by the three Mayors, set a world standard in promoting smart growth, sustainable development, urban renaissance.  The plans committed to accommodating growth within the city, focusing on public transport walking and cycling, developing ever more ambitious housing targets, renewing the public realm, and harnessing the dynamics of development to create a fairer and greener city.

2. Driving transport innovation

The Mayor’s ability to integrate transport and development – the envy of other cities like New York – has been central to the London Plan.  But Transport for London – chaired by all three Mayors in a signal of its significance – has also led policy innovation in transport – from the original congestion charging zone, to bike rentals, to the Oyster card and contactless payment, to the ultra-low emissions zone.

3. Providing civic leadership

The Mayors have also provided a focal point for civic leadership. This has not just been a matter of fronting bids for major events, and representing the city in trade fairs and Whitehall spending rounds. It has also sadly meant leading the city at times of tragedy – after the London bombings in 2005, and the terrorist attacks and Grenfell Tower fire that the city faced last summer. The Mayors have, with differing emphases and tone, presented London and the world with an image of capital that is inclusive, tolerant, diverse, open, united.  It’s an aspect of the Mayor’s role that is not mentioned in any statute, but eighteen years on you wonder how we lived without it.

4. Doing deals with central Government

Having a Mayor has enabled London to do deals with central Government on how to finance and deliver major infrastructure projects.  These deals – on the London 2012 Olympics and legacy, on Crossrail and on the Northern Line Extension – have helped London to accommodate its growth, to weather the storms of the financial crisis, and to transform areas benighted by decades of underinvestment – while also building world-leading capacity in major projects.

5. Making the case for more power

And the Mayors have secured new powers through statute.

  • In 2006, the Mayor was given powers to stage the London 2012 Olympics – which was fortunate given that he and the government had committed to do so the previous year.
  • In 2007, planning powers and housing powers were strengthened, as was the London Assembly’s role in approving mayoral appointments.
  • In 2011, policing oversight – always a bone of contention between the Mayor and Home Secretary was reformed, as the Metropolitan Police Authority was replaced by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
  • Also in 2011 the Localism Act empowered the London Assembly to reject mayoral strategies, and passed control of HCA and LDA land to the Mayor, delegated the affordable housing budget, enabled the Mayor to establish Mayor Development Corporations – shifting the focus of the GLA from strategy to delivery.But progress since 2011 has been faltering.  There have been devolution deals on the Adult Education Budget, agreements on health and social care, and discussions on justice devolution.  But despite two London finance commissions, and strong representations from the Mayor and London Councils, further devolution feels like unfinished business.

And at no time since the Mayoralty was set up 18 years ago have the challenges facing the capital looked more daunting. Local government services are under increasing pressure. A cooling housing market is leading to a slowdown in the construction and availability of affordable homes. Migration from the EU and across the country is falling. And all of this before Brexit.

Against that background, we need to rethink the way London operates for new times. We need to continue to make the case for new powers for the Mayor – across housing, taxes, and skills, to help London meet the challenges ahead.

From adhocracy to algorithm – notes on mayoral style (July 2018)

 [Originally published in OnLondon, 7 July 2018]

Halfway through his first term, there are some curious paradoxes about Sadiq Khan’s tenure as Mayor of London. He has a solid record of announcements under his belt, from a remixed London Plan to cash for affordable housing and eye-catching initiatives such as the borough of culture or ballots on estate regeneration.

While there’s a mounting funding crisis in Transport for London, initiatives such as the Hopper fare for buses have been successful, even if pedestrianising Oxford Street has fallen foul of Westminster Council politics. And Sadiq has campaigned for a capital-friendly Brexit, been vigorous in promoting London’s openness, and appointed well-respected and diverse deputy mayors and committees of advisors.

And yet. And yet. Despite assiduous media management, there are some voices – from Greater London Authority officers to housebuilders to senior borough executives – who talk of the Mayor as remote, inaccessible, disengaged. You can’t meet with him or speak with him, they say. You think you’ve agreed something with a deputy mayor, they complain, but then Sadiq does his own thing. It’s all smoke and mirrors, run by a tight gang around the Mayor who already have their eye on his next big job.

It’s worth pausing to ask whether these murmurs of discontent are simply the protests of the former in-crowd feeling the chill of a change in administration and a significant change in political direction. There’s certainly some of this, and you could argue that previous mayors were perhaps too eager to court housebuilders to little effect in terms of housing delivery.

But I think there’s something more – a change in style, or even mode of governance. Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone both governed in a highly personal manner; they wielded their authority in a way that the sociologist Max Weber might have described as “charismatic”. For Ken, leadership was a matter of drawing together the factions and alliances that had enabled him to rise to the top of the Greater London Council, doing deals with developers even when he felt like bringing a long spoon, schmoozing the blazered sportsocrats of the International Olympic Committee, and alternately raging at government and wheedling powers and resources from it.

Boris’s regime was even more personalised. From successes such as the promotion of the “Olympicopolis” legacy plan for the Olympic Park – now renamed Eastbank – to more questionable follies such as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Garden Bridge and Emirates cable car, his most prominent initiatives were high risk, opportunistic deals, bearing only a glancing relationship to mayoral powers or remit, but using sheer force of personality to lever resources from high net worth individuals and corporations.

All of which seems very far away from Sadiq’s approach. He’s not interested in doing deals, you sense, but in tightening and adjusting the policy levers at his disposal to secure the results he wants. His governance rests on the “legal-rational” (Weber’s term again) basis of the mayoral powers and remit, with decisions taken calmly and rationally – albeit with a keen eye for politics – rather than on the basis of deals done personally or with subordinates.

It’s a fundamentally different model, and one that other people in City Hall (perhaps lower down the pecking order and therefore less likely to miss direct access to the Mayor) relish. One said to me, “With Boris, you got the feeling that he had a highly-tuned machine that he couldn’t be bothered to steer. With this lot, you get clear direction, and authority to go out and do things.” It is also probably more like the technocratic mayoralty that I and fellow members of the transition team expected before the first mayoral election in 2000, when we played “war games” about how the newly established Mayor and London Assembly would operate in practice.

Whether Sadiq’s approach will be more or less successful than his predecessors’ remains to be seen. A city cannot just be governed by deals with developers and ad hoc initiatives devised in Davos cloakrooms, but it probably can’t run like an algorithm either. The Mayor’s resources are limited, so he needs to work with investors and developers to build the city he wants. With a few exceptions, I applaud Sadiq’s policies. But I wonder how some of them will be implemented.