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.

Cool markets and hot debates – Housing in London

[Originally publiched in OnLondon, 23 Feb 2018]

The number of houses and flats in London grew by nearly 40,000 in the year ending March 2017 – faster than it has since the mayoralty was established in 2000 and only just short of the former Mayor’s annual housing target. Some of the growth was down to controversial conversions of offices to homes (“permitted development”), but 30,000 new homes were built too, which is an achievement to be celebrated.  

But what if this is as good as it gets? It seems almost churlish to make the point, but there is a pile up of indicators suggesting that new home building in London is about to slow down sharply. The first alarm bell is rung by falling house prices and transaction levels, as highlighted in Centre for London’s The London Intelligence bulletin at the end of January. 

House prices across London have fallen at their fastest rate since 2009, and the fall in prices and transaction levels has been particularly sharp in relation to flats in the centre of the city. A recent survey by Molior Consulting confirms this top-of-the-market slow down: less than half of the luxury flats that were started last year were sold (off-plan or on completion). 

Molior’s figures refer to flats selling at around £3 million and these may seem pretty remote from the concerns of most Londoners – luxury flat developers are pretty low on the league table of much-loved London professions. But all the moving parts are connected. As housing grant has reduced, more and more affordable housing in London is delivered through developer obligations. While the number of affordable housing starts supported by mayoral funding has been rising, as the £3.15 billion funding package agreed with the government in 2016 feeds into the system, developer contributions still account for 50 per cent or more of the total. If the flow of luxury flats slows, so will the flow of affordable housing.

And there are other factors suggesting that supply is slowing. NHBC – the National Housing Building Council – issues warranties for around 80 per cent of new build homes in the UK. These tend to be issued just before construction work starts and therefore give a good indication of future supply. The number of warranties issued in London fell from 26,000 in 2015, most of which will have been built in the bumper 2016/17 year, to 17,500 in 2016, and stayed at that level in 2017.  

While the market cools, the politics of housebuilding in London are heating up. Haringey’s proposed joint venture with Lendlease is only the most prominent of a number of controversial partnerships for housing estate redevelopment. Campaigning in Haringey has unseated council leader Claire Kober and probably sealed the fate of the Haringey Development Vehicle itself. Other councils and developers will at the very least be more cautious about joint ventures – which typically take years to plan and even longer to implement – and nothing will happen before local elections in May.

Finally, Sadiq Khan’s draft new London Plan presents a tough policy environment. The Mayor has tightened affordable housing targets, proposed residents’ ballots for estate redevelopment schemes, restricted use of industrial land and shifted the burden of development on to the Outer London boroughs, where new development is most controversial politically. Many Londoners would support most if not all of these policy positions, but the assumption that developers will live with them in return for a stake in London’s super soaraway property market may be outdated. There is already talk of some of London’s biggest housebuilders shifting their focus to Birmingham, Manchester and other places where the market seems more buoyant.

In short, the prospects of accelerating housing delivery to meet the new London Plan target of 66,000 homes a year are looking slimmer by the day. But perhaps a sharp slowdown of housebuilding would not be such bad news after all. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” in words variously attributed to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel. For some years now, London’s housing market has hobbled along like a Heath Robinson contraption, with housing shortages driving land price inflation, social housing becoming an exercise in gamesmanship rather than provision of public goods, and housing targets always soaring ahead of supply like the stakhanovite fantasias of soviet planning.

Perhaps, if this model starts to look broken, we can look for alternatives. All sorts of magic bullets – housing estate redevelopment, Green Belt liberalisation, public sector land – have been aimed at and missed London’s housing targets to date, so we should be wary of singular solutions of blinding simplicity. But we could start to think about possibilities – about packages of measures that could fix London’s dysfunctional housing market.

This may indeed mean thinking about the Green Belt and estate redevelopment – ways of finding the land needed for new homes – but we also need fresh approaches to how homes are built and paid for. If slow sales are deterring traditional housebuilders, how can we rethink the institutional framework, funding structures and building methods?

Could housing benefit payments support borrowing to build, rather than being funnelled to private landlords? Could local authorities borrow more, directly or through central government bond issues, or work with pension funds and other long-term investors to find sites and build homes for rent, providing a stable income stream for both parties? Could off site construction be used at scale to supply local authorities and developers across the capital with low cost homes for vacant sites?
Tackling London’s housing crisis may mean going after some sacred cows: more focus on rent rather than sale; a positive approach to public investment and less worrying about how borrowing is treated in public accounts; more aggressive approaches to land hoarding; more direct public sector involvement; perhaps even a development corporation that can push through planning and construction across the capital.

Some of these options may be controversial – though a consensus for a radical package of reforms is growing among London’s politicians and housing experts – but watching as the market sputters to a halt seems even less attractive. To adapt Sherlock Holmes, “When we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, no matter how unpalatable, must be the housing delivery plan.”

But is there the political appetite and will to match the urgency of the challenge and the scale of the opportunity? Mayor Khan has already announced that he needs a five-fold increase in government funding for affordable housing, and roundly condemned the autumn 2017 budget for its failure to commit investment at this level. For its part, the government is cash-strapped, Brexit-blinkered, and unlikely to see much political capital in helping out a Labour mayor or London itself. The challenge – to Whitehall and City Hall – is to rise above the politics of the housing crisis, to take shared responsibility and shared credit for the bold steps needed to fix London’s broken housing market.

Found in the suburbs

[Originally published online by the Guardian, 6 December 2017]

The London plan, the latest draft of which was published at the end of November, is the great ocean-going liner of London mayoral politics. It carries as its cargo all the mayor’s most important policies, as it sails from draft to adoption, navigating the choppy waters of public consultation and examination-in-public on its way.

As soon as the plan’s two to three-year journey is completed, it turns round to begin afresh the process of review and redrafting. It is the keystone of mayoral strategies, and one of the most powerful tools the mayor of London has to define the shape of London. It regulates the use of land – a scarce asset in a growing but constrained city – and over time all 33 London boroughs should ensure that their plans and planning decisions fall in line with its policies on what should be built where.

This concentration of mayoral powers in planning means many policies take on a spatial complexion: while the mayor cannot tax or ban unhealthy fast food shops, he can propose that they are located away from schools. He cannot license nightclubs, but he can require developers to meet the cost of soundproofing if they build alongside nightclubs. He does not manage financial services, but he can preserve land for offices in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.

If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and if you are a planning document, everything looks like a land use issue.

At the heart of the latest London plan is its focus on annual new housing supply, raised from its previous target of 42,000 to 66,000, with half being affordable. It’s an ambitious target, considering that the present supply of new homes, 29,000, is less than half the new target – but the mayor argues that the capital’s crisis over a lack of affordable homes requires a big step up. Few would disagree with that.

Some of the proposed homes may be built outside London – the plan commits to working more closely with neighbouring councils, a scheme that will be considered in a forthcoming report by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre – but the priority will be building homes within the capital.

Alongside investment in affordable homes, which Khan says needs to be increased to £2.7bn, and land at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common, the mayor must rely on his planning powers to achieve his target. In some cases, he will be able to intervene himself in planning decisions, but can only do so where certain conditions are met, such as schemes with more than 150 housing units or buildings over 30 metres tall.

In most cases, he will have to rely on the policies and planning decisions made by individual London boroughs and some outer London boroughs, who are being asked to double or even treble their speed of housebuilding – and who may be reluctant to do so, given the concerns of local voters.

So the plan seeks to make it easier for boroughs to grant planning permission and harder to refuse it. High density in itself, for example, can no longer be a reason to turn a scheme down – although there is sensible provision for careful scrutiny of the design of the highest density schemes.

There is also a sharper focus on smaller sites, which are expected to account for 25,000 of the 66,000 new homes a year. The plan says smaller sites should be prioritised by boroughs, with design codes drawn up to identify opportunities for new development, particularly around transport hubs, and a presumption in favour of giving planning permission.

But all this relies on developers wanting to build. For 20 years, London’s housing market has boomed, so the challenge has been how much the mayor and boroughs can secure from developers in terms of social housing and other community benefits; where permission has been refused, developers have often come back with a better offer.

At the launch of the draft plan, London’s deputy mayor, Jules Pipe, was adamant that it would not stifle development or undermine viability of schemes. But planning as a tool works better at directing development than initiating it. There is already a growing backlog of planning consents that have been given, but where houses have not been built, and without a dramatic increase in funding, the mayor has only limited powers to get homes built.

The draft plan does want to find incentives for homes to be built faster, and a switch to more rental developments and smaller sites should help, but at a time when London’s housing market is cooling, planning permission will only be half the battle.

  • This article was corrected on 12 December to clarify the mayor’s target of £2.7bn to invest in affordable homes.

He\’s Only Making Plans for London

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[Written a few weeks ago, and published on MJ website 10.11.16]

Almost drowned out by the noise over airport expansion, Sadiq Khan issued A City for All Londoners this week, the vision document that will underpin the Mayors strategies, and in particular the London Plan, the citys spatial blueprint.


What then does this tell us about what we can expect from Sadiqs mayorality? The changes are subtle many paragraphs would not look out of place in Boris Johnson’s 2008 Planning for a Better London but they do signal shifts in emphasis and focus.

There is no change in the Mayors commitment to protecting the Green Belt, but theres a strong focus on the intensification of existing development, for example, in town centre locations and around transport hubs, with a particular focus on TfL and other public sector landholdings. Big sites and opportunity areas like Barking Riverside, which has been promising to deliver 10,000 homes for the past 15 years, are still part of the story, but as Centre for Londons report Going Large emphasises, these can be challenging to deliver. Looking at existing town centres and transport hubs for new growth opportunities acknowledges the limits of a big siteapproach in a city that is growing as fast as London.

Theres also a welcome emphasis not just on housing numbers, but on the creation of neighbourhoods. This includes reference to mixed-use development, and a good growthstrategy that encompasses affordability, quality of place, social infrastructure and zero-carbon initiatives. The document largely steers clear of the more controversial aspects of housing policy, with no mention of estate redevelopment (as discussed in Centre for Londons recent Another Storey), 50 per cent affordable housing presented as a long-term target rather than a day one stipulation, and only a cursory reference to lack of transparencyin foreign ownership (although an investigation into the latter is planned). 

A further subtle shift can be seen in Sadiqs proposals for economic development, as the self-styled most pro-business Mayor yet”.  While maintaining the strength of the central Londons business districts, including through opposing office to residential conversions, A City for All Londoners emphasises the potential for more development, including offices and hotels, in well-connected outer London centres.

Transport and environmental issues are discussed together, confirming pledges on air quality, and setting out a vision for healthy streets(using a pedestrianized Oxford Street as an example), which enable walking and cycling. Major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, East London river crossings and the Bakerloo Line extension are plugged, with an emphasis on their integration with new development, as is the takeover of suburban rail that Centre for London proposed earlier this year in Turning South London Orange. But there is also a strong focus on behaviour change to reduce car use, and deliver a feet firstplan for central London.

The document also touches on some of the less tangible aspects of urban infrastructure, social cohesion, mental health, community safety, active citizenship, and volunteering. Theres a reference to economic inequality also, including the establishment of an Economic Fairness Team to push for better workplace standards. Cultural infrastructure from theatres and galleries to skate parks and gay pubs is presented as central to Londons success, and the Mayor argues for agent of changemeasures to ensure that long-standing clubs and music venues are protected from noise complaints from new residents.

Though it has dominated public life for five months, references to Brexit are few and far between. The EU referendum result is delicately described as not what I and many London businesses had hoped for, but the Mayor is cautious in pushing for special provisions for London. Fiscal devolution the focus of the reconvened London Finance Commissionis only mentioned in passing, and immigration is set aside as a matter for government despite recent publicity for the idea of regional visas. Understandably perhaps, the Mayor is avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, or grand claims for what he can deliver – particularly where this will need government agreement, or depend on the murky ebb and flow of Brexit policy and negotiation.

Sadiq\’s first 100 days

[Published in The Guardian, 15 August 2016]

Sadiq Khan’s first 100 days in office – officially marked today – have given an indication of the character of his mayoralty. There has been none of the drama of Ken Livingstone’s 2000 triumph against the Labour party machine, and his subsequent battle against partial privatisation of the tube. Nor has there been the chaos of Boris Johnson’s 2008 election, with deputy mayors arriving and departing with a regularity that would be the envy of many London commuters.
 
Instead, Khan’s arrival in office has been marked by a careful approach to appointments (taking care over these was Johnson’s parting advice to his successor) and astute leverage of the mayor’s public profile while the City Hall policy machine begins to grind through its rusty gears.

Launching a mayoral programme takes time, especially if you haven’t inherited much from your predecessor. Ken Livingstone, for whom I worked as private secretary for his first year in office, didn’t implement congestion charging until 2003 – three years after he was elected – with the Olympic Bid and London Plan following the next year.

In 2008, Livingstone wanted to return to office to implement free bike hire and collect the Olympic Flag from Beijing, but Boris’ election victory meant that these became his projects. By contrast, Boris knew he wasn’t coming back in 2016 – some would say he mentally checked out some time earlier – and left the cupboard pretty bare.

Khan has more than 200 manifesto commitments, and it has taken him time to appoint a team to focus on implementation, wrestling with the complex and only marginally coherent selection of agencies, strategies and duties that the mayor has accreted since 2000.

His appointments include a core group drawn from the campaign, including his chief of staff, David Bellamy, and policy directors Nick Bowes, Jack Stenner, Leah Kreitzmann and Patrick Hennessey. Observers describe them as a tight team who have worked together for a long time. There’s virtue in the familiarity and trust this engenders, but the experience of previous mayors suggests that not every campaigner can easily make the transition to administration.

Alongside them, Khan has appointed deputy mayors like Justine Simmons, James Murray, Val Shawcross, Sophie Linden and Jules Pipe. These are hardly household names, but are well known and generally well respected in London government circles. The mayor has also brought in outside experts, such as Rajesh Agrawal, tech entrepreneur and deputy mayor for business. The last few appointments are due to follow imminently, and the Centre for London has argued that they should include a chief digital officer to lead digital transformation across London government.

The mayor has made early announcements on air quality, which will be a priority area for action alongside housing, economic development, culture and social cohesion. The next big policy milestone will probably be in the autumn, when Khan sets out his vision for the new London Plan (which is unlikely to make it through its tortuous formal process, including public consultation and an ‘examination in public’, until 2019), and the other strategies that sit underneath it.

New rules on housing will be a big focus, and there are already background murmurings that Sadiq risks being boxed in by commitments on affordability. Some of these murmurings come from housebuilders and developers – and they would say that wouldn’t they? – but there clearly is some nervousness as the market feels the chilling effects of the post-referendum slowdown.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s team are focusing strongly on land held by Transport for London, which has the double challenge of needing to generate income to compensate for reduced government grant during a fares freeze, as well as meeting the mayor’s affordability policies.

But it is Brexit that has dominated the mayor’s first months. Khan moved straight from the mayoral campaign to the remain campaign, and since the referendum result has become the voice for London’s pro-EU majority, arguing for London to have a seat at the negotiating table, reforming the London Finance Commission to seek more local control of taxes, and broadcasting the message that #LondonIsOpen to the world.

It is easy to dismiss campaigning and public appearances as froth on the serious business of governance, but in the fraught days of summer 2016, the mayor of London’s role in leading his nine million citizens is perhaps as important as providing them with services, initiatives and strategies. These will need to follow in time, and there are huge challenges ahead for London, but the mayor has made a sure-footed start.

Control – can London play the right devolution tune?

[Originally published on LSE Policy Blog and Democratic Audit UK]

The Government’s sporadic and asymmetric approach to devolution reminds me of a story about the pioneering Mancunian music producer Martin Hannett. When Joy Division first presented themselves at his studio in 1979, Hannett told them to start playing, and then retreated into a cupboard, shutting the door behind him. The bewildered band played on for a few minutes, before sending Ian Curtis, their singer, to knock on the cupboard door and ask Hannett what was going on.

“You just carry on playing,” Hannett replied. “I’m staying in this f*cking cupboard, till I hear something I f*cking like, then I’ll tell you.” The Mayor of London and the boroughs have been playing devolutionary tunes since the London Finance Commission was set up in 2012, but are still awaiting any signal of Government approval.

Some omens have been promising. Last November, on the eve of the London Conference, there was a major devolution announcement. New powers would be devolved – over housing, planning, skills, health and social care – to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, headed by a directly-elected Mayor.

At the Conference the next day, discussions were animated: what did the ‘Devo Manc’ announcement mean, had London been left behind, how could the capital catch up with the vanguard of the Northern Powerhouse? On a panel that afternoon, Greg Clark MP, then Minister for State for Cities, said that London shouldn’t wait to be handed more powers on a plate, but should come forward with tangible proposals, as the Greater Manchester authorities had done and as other city-regions were doing, for our own ‘city deal’.

What has happened since then, or indeed since the London Finance Commission’s report was published in May 2013? On fiscal devolution – the power to set, vary and collect taxes – the London Finance Commission proposed devolution of the full range of property taxes (including stamp duty, capital gains tax, council tax and business rates), and the relaxation of borrowing controls.

The current priority for London government is full control of business rates, enabling local authorities to vary the regime to incentivise growth in particular areas and sectors. As Government has already legislated for local authorities to retain a share of business rate growth (50 per cent generally; less in central London and other areas seeing exceptional growth), you could argue that the principle has been conceded, though there is little sign of appetite for more comprehensive fiscal devolution – to London or other English cities – from Whitehall.

The experience of Manchester and other cities suggests that administrative devolution of other powers and budgets may be more fertile territory. The Greater London Authority and London’s 33 local authorities have been working together, through their ‘Congress of Leaders’, to develop proposals for devolution.

The emerging proposals are presented as part of a package of public service reform; that is to say, as necessary enablers for more efficient delivery of public services in London. They will be submitted to the Government’s spending review this month, in the hope that changes will be announced in the Autumn Statement. The proposals cover:

  • devolution of budgets for employment support for long-term unemployed people;
  • tailoring further education and skills provision to London’s needs;
  • devolving budgets for business support, including for export promotion and SME growth;
  • giving London government a lead responsibility for co-ordinating the criminal justice system;
  • measures to improve co-ordination between health and social care, including new joint commissioning arrangements, borough-based allocation of budgets and devolution of capital budgets and assets; and
  • more flexibility on housing, including on local authority borrowing powers and cross-boundary deployment of s106 payments.

The case for these measures is strong, not least given the resilience and adaptability that local authorities have demonstrated during the years of fiscal austerity. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has already indicated that he wants to devolve skills budgets to London, and to give the Mayor more economic development powers, and city devolution has a more powerful champion following Greg Clark’s promotion to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But it’s hard to get a reading on the direction of government policy, not least as progress towards health devolution – the biggest prize for London in terms of potential for better joint working with social services – has been slow-paced in Manchester. The cupboard door remains closed.

And there are other factors that may slow progress for London in particular. The argument that London already has enough powers is relatively easily dealt with. As the London Finance Commission argued, devolution to London should be alongside, not at the expense of, devolution to other cities. If London can meet its own housing and skills needs, for example, it will put less pressure on other UK cities.

Politics may be a more serious obstacle, as London approaches an election year. The Government may want to see what sort of mayor London elects in May 2016, before doing an extensive deal on devolution (though this is not in any case likely to involve the Scottish-style devolution being proposed by Labour outsider Gareth Thomas).

But the biggest stumbling block for London devolution, apart from Whitehall’s innate inertia and reluctance to cede control, may be sheer complexity. The city deals announced to date have placed a premium on effective governance, with a directly elected mayor being superimposed on joint working arrangements in Manchester. London already has a directly elected mayor, of course. In fact it has five, including not only the Mayor of London, but also the mayors of Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets. In addition to these, there are 28 council leaders, and the City of London’s august structures. Scrutiny in the London Assembly, and in each borough, enriches this heady mix.

So London’s governance arrangements are significantly more complicated than the ‘first among equals’ mayoral model proposed in Manchester, and likely to be adoptedin other English city-regions, despite the new joint machinery proposed to oversee devolved services (while retaining several ‘sovereignty’ over existing services). There is also growing appetite for more powers from London’s sub-regional partnerships – a third tier of governance. South London Partnership has established a formal joint committee to lobby for and exercise more powers, and similar groupings in other parts of London are pushing for a stronger subregional dimension to devolution.

All of which may suggest that – 50 years after London’s boroughs were established and 15 years after the Mayor and Assembly were elected – London’s governance is beginning to show its age. The Greater London Authority has accrued significantly more powers than were originally envisaged, and more of these are direct (for example, on housing, land and planning) rather than strategic roles.
For their part, the boroughs strongly resisted the suggestions floated by Ken Livingstone for their merger into ‘superboroughs’. But an emerging voluntaristic subregional geography suggests that they see the need for something that sits between one metropolis and 33 sovereign subdivisions, recognising that skills, employment, housing and health are no respecters of administrative boundaries.

London’s leaders and mayors have been galvanised by the potential for devolution to develop a powerful consensus for public service reform. As they play on, hoping that Government will hear a tune it likes, perhaps more radical thinking will be needed to secure the devolved powers that the capital needs.

The bridge and the troubled waters

Originally posted on Public Finance 8 June 2015

The European public procurement directives will probably be quite low on David Cameron’s to-do list as he shuttles to Brussels to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership. But the increasingly irate debates over the Mayor of London’s proposed Garden Bridge are an object lesson in the problems these can cause when political initiative rubs up against technocratic process.

The directives require all public spending over specific levels to be openly tendered, including through the Official Journal of the EU (the \’OJEU\’ that gives the regulations their name). These are intended to ensure transparency and a level playing field across the bloc, but the complexity and length of time taken (OJEU procurements can take six months or longer) have a number of perverse consequences (and there are persistent mutterings that other countries don’t seem to take them quite as seriously as ‘we’ do).

Complying with the regulations involves delay and paperwork, so ‘going over the OJEU threshold’ is something that all public servants try to avoid. One strategy is to try to break down contracts to keep them under the limit. Another is to rely on opaque ‘call off contracts’ or ‘panel arrangements’ where a small number of (usually large) suppliers are assembled on to a panel, among whom individual commissions are divvied up. This creates a closed shop for the period of the panel, and combines with the complexity of the procurement process and a cautious approach to scoring financial risk, to exclude the local small businesses that many politicians have pledged to support.

The problem becomes acute when it comes to big ideas like the Garden Bridge, rather than more run-of-the-mill projects. The theory is that an elected authority carefully develops strategies and policies, and prepares budgets and tender documentation for the projects identified. Following exhaustive planning, consultation and procurement processes, these are commissioned and delivered.

But anyone who has worked in public administration knows, life isn’t quite like that. The man from the ministry (or the Mayor’s office) no longer has a monopoly on wisdom, and probably never did.  Ideas emerge from civil society, from private initiative, from every angle. Politicians grab good ones, and their teams currently have to twist themselves into knots trying to create the process that will lead to the right answer.

The Garden Bridge row is a case in point. Whatever you think of the proposal, recent revelations in the Observer tell a typical story. Joanna Lumley, designer Thomas Heatherwick and others approached the Mayor of London with an idea, Boris liked it, and that idea is now being pushed forward. Between these two points, there was a process that can perhaps most politely be described as ‘messy’ whereby there was a competition, which the Lumley-Heatherwick proposal won. Cue understandable anger from other, disappointed, architects, and negative coverage that the project does not need right now.

But the alternative would have been just as problematic. Other people have proposed garden bridges in London from time to time, but would the Heatherwick design team have put so much work into developing and promoting their proposal if there was a good chance that someone else would have ended up getting the commission?

Open and transparent procurement is an important defence against corruption, kickbacks and simple waste, but the European regulations set technocratic process against political accountability.  Mayors and other politicians will be approached with bright ideas from time to time. Surely they should have political space to judge how bright these are, and to implement them, subject to safeguards and controls – not least, the electorate’s ability to eject politicians who pursue vanity projects?

Rather than going through cosmetic competitions, perhaps the elected leaders of public authorities should be allowed to sign a statement formally exempting a project from open procurement, and setting out their reasons (a similar process is followed for some Freedom of Information exemptions). These exemptions would be published and would be intently scrutinised, by the press and opposition politicians, so political leaders would be reluctant to sign them unless they felt they had a really strong case – a unique idea, a genuine emergency, an economic justification for keeping a contract locally. This certification process could be accompanied by internal or external review of value for money.

The Garden Bridge has been criticised as a vanity project and rouses strong opinions on all sides, but our cities would be poorer if politicians were unable to grab hold of big ideas and help to make them happen. Reforming EU procurement legislation could save an enormous amount of ducking, weaving and bad faith, and allow politicians to decide and be held accountable for how public money is spent.

The drugs don\’t work

Originally posted in Guardian Housing Network, 15 May 2015

Housing was a far bigger issue in the 2015 general election manifestos than in 2010, and generated some of the campaign’s most controversial policy proposals. This reflects a growing public sense of crisis, and the combination of rising prices and slow construction that is particularly toxic in London, where the average house cost 11 times average earnings in 2014 (compared to seven times nationwide).

It is no surprise then that polling by Ipsos Mori shows that 28% of Londoners see housing as a top issue facing Britain today, compared with 13% nationwide. Housing is also not such a big issue for Conservative voters, and London is an increasingly Labour city, so will it remain high on the to-do list – and how will policies affect London?

The Conservative manifesto pledged to build 200,000 discounted starter homes for first-time buyers, to establish help-to-buy Isa savings accounts and to give housing association tenants the right to buy their homes. But London’s house and land prices are so high these policies will have least impact on the housing crisis in the city where it is most acute.

Help-to-buy take up has been much lower in London to date, and the new help-to-buy Isa has a maximum savings limit of £12,000, which will make only a small dent in affordability when London first-time buyer deposits are as high as £50,000.

The extension of right to buy could cost London the most, while benefitting it least. The National Housing Federation estimates that only 15% of London housing association tenants would be able to afford to buy their property, compared with 35% in northern England. But these discounted sales will be cross-subsidised by sales of the most expensive council houses, which will raise most cash in London (though high replacement costs will reduce the amount raised).

Whether boosting demand will boost supply is much debated, but the manifesto made some proposals about supply too. Measures to encourage use of brownfield and public sector land will be important in London, though much brownfield land in London is already allocated. Building on the green belt seems to be prohibited, while new garden cities will only be built where these are “locally led” (which probably rules them out in much of south-east England).

The impact of these measures may be limited in London, and parliamentary time dominated by other issues, but the coming state of constitutional flux offers an opportunity. Thanks to fixed-term parliaments, we know which party will be in government in early 2020. But we are a lot foggier about what they will be governing: a United Kingdom standing apart from its European neighbours; a loose federation of resurgent nation states; or an uneasy and asymmetric patchwork of provinces?

If all this is on the table, then housing in London must be. If the national prescription doesn’t work in London, then the next mayor should make the case for something that does; not for special treatment, but for more powers, resources and flexibility – to build more, better and faster.

London boroughs are starting to build again, and should be less restricted in borrowing against future revenue streams (including rent). The mayor should be able to establish more housing zones and development corporations to build homes using public land.

There is also a case to be made for pooling developers’ affordable housing payments across London to support a London-wide programme for affordable housing. The next mayor may also want to encourage higher densities in outer London, or push to look again at London’s green belt, and ask where releasing land (perhaps under public sector control) might provide more housing and more enjoyable green space.

Many of these solutions are highly interventionist and some would be controversial but it is hard to build the housing needed in a city like London without putting some noses out of joint. Mayors can do that. The political complexion of the incumbent should not make a difference; whatever the capital’s voting patterns, its housing crisis cannot be allowed to strangle growth.

Candidates for mayor in 2016 will vie to demonstrate that they understand the urgency of the crisis, and are committed to action. Housing could be the big issue in the next mayoral campaign; it is in everyone’s interest for the winner to be given the powers and resources to deliver on their promises.

No direction home

Originally posted on Centre for London\’s blog 27 April 2015

Londoners worry differently. We are less concerned about immigration and the NHS than other Brits, but much more anxious about housing – in 2014, 28 per cent of Londoners cited housing as one of the most important issues facing the country, versus 13 per cent across Great Britain (Ipsos MORI Issues Index, 2014 aggregated data).

The symptoms of the housing crisis are more pronounced in London, too. The average house price is seven times the average salary across England, but 11 times the average salary in London. Prices rose by 28 per cent across England between late 2008 and late 2014, but by 53 per cent in London (60 per cent in inner London).

This divergence is hurting the rest of the country as well as London: at a recent Centre for London event, former mayoral candidate Steve Norris described high housing prices as “both a fortress and a cage” preventing mobility between London and the rest of the UK, and undermining productivity.

So it looks like good news that the main party manifestos are making commitments on housing. But the specific symptoms and scale of London’s housing crisis call for specific solutions; many of the policies being touted are likely to have least impact in the Capital, where the housing crisis is most acute. The manifestos are missing the mark.

For example, whatever its much-debated merits as policy, the Conservatives’ proposal to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants will have least impact in London, where the National Housing Federation estimates that only 15 per cent of tenants would be able to afford to buy their property (even with a discount), as opposed to 35 per cent in Northern England. Similarly, Help-to-Buy ISAs’ maximum savings of £12,000 will only make a small dent in affordability in a city where first time buyer deposits are as high as £50,000. And high land prices may make London the least economic location for 200,000 discounted starter homes.

Labour’s plans for new garden cities could relieve pressure on London, if implemented, though a commitment to working through consensus will make it hard to find sites in South East England. A preference for local first time buyers seems parochially mismatched to London’s churning population; born-and-bred Londoners do struggle to afford somewhere to live, but so do the thousands of young people who come to London every year and fuel the Capital’s economy. Meanwhile, the Mansion Tax would affect more than 100,000 householders in London, many of whom are not particularly high earners, or ‘mansion-dwellers’ by any normal definition.

To be fair, other policies will have more of an impact: the Conservatives commitment to fund brownfield land development, as prefigured by the London Land Commission announced in the budget, could favour the capital. Labour’s commitment to rent controls will be controversial with landlords, but could make a real difference to private sector renters (who comprise 24 per cent of London households, against 15 per cent in England and Wales), and powers to intervene against land-banking speculators could ginger up housing supply (London has 216,000 homes with planning permission in the ‘pipeline’).

Party manifestos are national documents, so maybe we should not expect them to be tailored to the specifics of an asymmetric housing crisis. And they are defensive as well as aspirational, seeking to offer pledges and commitments that will appeal to the majority, without opening up a flank that the other side can attack. But if London’s growth continues to outstrip expectations, how will the city find space for the ten million people forecast to live here by 2030? This is a highly-charged debate, on which the manifestos are silent: should we pursue more housing estate redevelopment, more council-led building to supplement housebuilders’ limited capacity, higher densities in suburban locations, remodeling the Green Belt, allowing more commercial-to-residential conversion?

Each of these ideas has its advocates, but each also has bitter opponents; losers as well as winners. The discussion may be as controversial in London as it is nationwide, but it will be harder for mayoral candidates to duck an issue that is so important to Londoners. Whether government lets them make a difference is a different matter, and the omens are not promising. Amidst all the talk of city deals and devolution, the modest proposal made last year in the Inspector’s report on the London Plan, that London should begin to think more radically about where it could accommodate new housing, was firmly slapped down by planning minister Brandon Lewis: Green Belt was sacrosanct, and there would be no going back to regional planning.

Nonetheless, perhaps the candidates standing for election as London’s next Mayor in a year’s time will feel the urgency of the crisis, claim the mandate, and demand the powers and resources to do something about it. And maybe, just maybe, the next government will listen.

Are we not Devo?

[Originally posted on Centre for London blog on 18 March 2015 – I realise I should have been cross-posting, not least to keep a record.]

A devolutionary ‘city deal’ was announced in the budget this morning for West Yorkshire, adding to those already in place for Glasgow, Sheffield and Greater Manchester. More are promised, for Cardiff, Aberdeen, Inverness and Cambridge. But like kids covetously eyeing each other’s toys, the other cities are asking, ‘How do we get what Manchester has?’

Manchester (or rather the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which will comprise the leaders of the ten Greater Manchester councils, plus a directly-elected mayor) is setting the standard. It will have devolved powers over transport, housing, policing and crime, skills, international promotion and – following a surprise announcement last month – NHS spending. The Chancellor’s budget added full retention of growth in business rates (other cities get 50 per cent). Other cities deals announced so far have been far more modest in scope, covering skills, specified infrastructure schemes, business support and some international promotion coordination.

And London is lagging too. The Chancellor’s speech alluded to announcements about devolved funding for skills, more planning powers and a London Land Commission, all of which were made last month when the Mayor and Chancellor launched their Long Term Economic Plan for London. But neither the Greater London Authority nor the boroughs have any control over London’s health service.

To be fair, taking on the NHS in London (which employs 200,000 people, more than the construction industry) could be seen as a poisoned chalice (eve a hospital pass), as institutions (most recently Barts Health NHS Trust) teeter on the brink of failure. But the failure to join up health and social care has become one of the NHS’ big problems, with old people whose care has been neglected ending up in A&E, and hospital beds occupied by patients who are ready for discharge, but can’t access social care services to enable them to leave. The short-term incentives are to dump costs between local government and the NHS, but both parties have an interest in tackling a problem that is leading to unnecessary suffering and huge wastes of money. This may mean some tough choices, but the past few years have certainly given London local government the experience it will need in taking tough choices.

So why can’t London look after its own health services? Other cities have been told that they can’t go ‘The Full Manc’ unless they accept a directly-elected Mayor rather the relying on a congress of council leaders (thereby opening a new front in the war of attrition over elected mayors that has been running for the best part of 20 years). But London has plenty of mayors: Boris Johnson as Mayor of (Greater) London, as well as mayors Bullock, Pipe and Wales of Lewisham, Hackney and Newham respectively.

Perhaps the two-tier local government system makes London too complex? London certainly is complicated, sometimes Byzantine, though the Greater London Authority and London councils are working quietly behind the scenes, including on a shared bid for further devolution. And in any case, the governance arrangements proposed for Manchester, which include a Greater Manchester Strategic Health and Social Care Partnership Board, and a Greater Manchester Joint Commissioning Board comprising NHS England, clinical commissioning groups and boroughs, are hardly straightforward.

Perhaps the real problem is one of government, not governance. Perhaps, as they look over the River at St Thomas’s Hospital, MPs consider that handing over the NHS in the capital to London’s elected leaders is a step too far, as is the case with the Met Police. Perhaps, as in Washington DC, some capital city services are seen as too important for local accountability.

This fear of letting go should not be determining public policy in London. But if it is, Londoners may start to wonder whether the presence of Parliament and Government is a boon to the capital, or a millstone.