Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan have said lots of lovely-sounding things about making London better. But when you drill into the detail, how much do they understand about what the city needs?
Dear Zac and Sadiq,
I know you’re trying to win an election, and it’s all about sound bites and promises. “More homes! better transport! cleaner air! safer streets!”, you cry. What’s not to like?
Electioneering of necessity skates over some of the practicalities of delivering on the promises. When you sit down at that desk in City Hall on 6 May and the reality of the job sets in, it is worth noting the words of Benjamin Barber, the author of a book called If Mayors Ruled the World.
He wrote: “Mayors are pragmatists, they’re problem-solvers. Their job is to get things done, and if they don’t, they’re out of a job.”
The biggest problem you face, and you both admit it, is housing. You both promise the delivery of 50,000 homes a year. The “solution” is the magical availability of lots of public land – particularly Transport for London’s (TfL). But it’s not as easy as that. Releasing land around stations is already a part of policy and its income will be needed to offset the £700m cut in grant announced by George Osborne last November. Public land per se does not suddenly produce houses – a complex supply chain delivers homes, which includes design, planning, finance, skills, materials and the market.
In your manifestos you agree on a lot of things – make use of public land, resident support for state regeneration, promoting good design (although not defining what it is) and protecting the Green Belt. Sadiq’s proposals tend to be more general than Zac’s: “I’ll work with councils, housing associations and cooperatives to help them …” – although he’s very firm about setting affordable housing provision at 50%. Zac has a range of specific ideas, some of which are rather good and I hope that Sadiq, if he wins, will not be too proud to borrow them.
Zac says he will create a team of Flying Planners as was proposed in the mayor’s Design Advisory Group (MDAG) report published in March. Tick. He also picks up on the idea of more mayoral development corporations to coordinate and speed up development. Tick. A housing design competition. Tick. And of course he proposes a chief architect to drive high-quality design. Hurrah!
However, this is in the context of comments such as “more acceptable to the local community”, a statement that current planning produces a “hotchpotch of confused building styles” and “I will support communities taking a much more proactive role in setting the rules of the game” (wasn’t that what neighbourhood forums were for?). Unless Zac’s very careful this could turn out to be a nimby’s charter that will put paid to any chance he has of hitting his 50k target. This might not be the first time the Tories have promised greater local powers and then had to call them in when they didn’t deliver as head office hoped.
But be under no illusion that nimbyism is not just a way of protecting places but it also pushes up prices. Since the cost of housing and young people’s ability to afford to stay in the capital are top of your agendas, it is worth both of you reading The Gated City by The Economist’s Ryan Avent, which studies the impact of rising house prices on the economies of cities in the US.
“The residents of America’s productive cities fear change in their neighbourhoods and fight growth,” writes Avent. “In doing so they make their cities more expensive and less accessible to people with middle incomes. These middle income workers move elsewhere, reducing their own earning power and the economy’s potential in the process.” Where have we heard that before?
For electoral reasons, both of you are understandably cautious of discussing ideas about suburban densification and development but you will have to bite this bullet when you take your place in City Hall. The outer London doughnut provides a rich seam of votes but it also requires investment and development. You need to make these boroughs more attractive places to live and work. If young start-ups can’t afford space in Shoreditch they threaten to move off to Birmingham or Berlin. Why not Ilford or Croydon or Hounslow? Your new London Plan should shape a city that is more like a pizza with the olives evenly scattered (the polycentric city) than a doughnut with all the jam in the middle.
Sadiq, people who build houses tell me that a blanket 50% affordable could well lead to far fewer being built in total as developers go off to do something more profitable, prices rise and S106 negotiations go on forever. Why not just go with Berkeley chairman Tony Pidgley’s suggestion of a fixed 30% tariff right across London, every borough no argument and no delay?
I am of course disappointed with both of you that you have not come out more powerfully in support for cycling and for the whole concept of active travel which is key to improving wellbeing, reducing obesity and diabetes, reducing pollution, and making more efficient use of our roads and streets. The MDAG proposed an active travel commissioner in place of a cycling commissioner in order to deliver solutions that balanced the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. And while we’re on transport, perhaps you could pinch Caroline Pidgeon and the Lib Dem’s splendid idea to provide cheaper Tube fares before 7.30am, which would not only be good for lower paid workers but would reduce overcrowding at peak times.
As Peter Ackroyd wrote so powerfully in his book London: A Biography, London is a living, breathing organism, with its own laws of growth and change and its echoic qualities set down by history. Let London set the agenda. Visionary pragmatism rather than political dogma can best deliver a city that is diverse, fair, healthy, successful and a great place to be.
Peter Murray is chairman of New London Architecture