If only we had politicians who, instead of promising the impossible, focused on what can really be delivered, and then got on with it..
Does the description of a politician who has overpromised and created completely unrealistic expectations sound familiar? Can you think of a name that personifies someone fighting to survive but unwilling to change tack, rethink their approach or make any political sacrifices? Theresa May is probably the first to come to mind: just this week she endured criticisms of her Brexit deal from MPs on all sides of the House, only to be humiliated further by Donald Trump’s outspoken comments suggesting the deal threatens trading relations between the UK and the US. “A great deal for the EU” were his words – clearly aligning himself with fuming Brexiteers on the Tory backbench.
But while our prime minister is perhaps the most extreme example of a politician under pressure, there is another who is experiencing the uncomfortable reality of promises made that are proving near impossible to deliver: London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.
“The London Plan focuses entirely on increasing development density and assumes increased build rates that experts uniformly believe are impossible”
We’re not talking about Crossrail, where he is under intense scrutiny for his part in the project’s current problems of cost overruns and missed deadlines. London Assembly members have pulled no punches in their criticism of his handling of the £16bn project, accusing him of “incompetence, or at the very least, disinterest” (by which they mean lack of interest), while transport minister Andrew Jones has tried to pin all the blame for having to stump up extra cash for the late-running scheme on the mayor.
Attempts to scapegoat Khan are unlikely to work over the long term because ultimately the British public now expects major infrastructure to cost way more than the estimates. Once Crossrail is up and running and making Londoners’ lives easier, all will be forgiven. Probably.
No, where Khan is more likely to come unstuck is over his pledge to build more homes for Londoners suffering inflated rents and house prices 12 times the average income. When he canvassed for votes back in 2016 housing was his big rallying cry. He said enough was enough, something had to be done and he was the man to do it. He slammed Boris Johnson, his predecessor, for failing to deliver 50,000 homes a year and said he would make sure 50% of new homes would be affordable. He won a convincing victory over his Conservative rival, Zac Goldsmith.
Since then his draft London Plan has targeted 65,000 homes a year. But now the yawning gap between the aspiration and the reality is evident. The latest annual government statistics show net additions to housing stock in the capital have slumped 20% to a meagre 32,000. And what makes this failure worse is that the rest of England appears to be increasing the housing supply and is close to hitting government targets based on its new standard for assessing housing need. Under this standard method London should in fact be building 77,000 homes a year – but instead it is pulling the figures down for the country as a whole.
Over the summer, housing minister James Brokenshire savaged Kahn’s record, saying his targets were too low and threatening to intervene if he does not improve. But is Khan actually to blame? Many housebuilders point to the damage central government’s stamp duty reforms have wreaked on the London market. Brexit jitters are also giving purchasers pause for thought: why buy a new home when the governor of the Bank of England says a no-deal exit could lead to a 35% fall in house prices?
In some ways Khan is a victim of the times, but he’s not off the hook entirely. One issue that exasperates many in the housing sector is politicians’ inability to tackle the thorny issue of the green belt, and Khan is no different in this respect. Campaigning against Goldsmith he may have felt he had no choice but to pledge to uphold greenbelt protections, and in power he has stuck to that stance. His London Plan focuses entirely on increasing development density and assumes increased build rates that experts uniformly believe are impossible – or at least, it has never been done before on a scale Khan envisages.
You would think that when facing the fact that London has never built even 40,000 homes a year since the Second World War, the mayor might concede that the capital needs to look beyond its boundaries and start working with neighbouring authorities on a new strategy. This suggestion was first made in 2014 by the London Plan inspector, and it has yet to be taken up.
So, here we have another case of a politician continuing down the same path despite overwhelming evidence that they will be met with failure. We will find out on 11 December MPs’ verdict of the prime minister’s withdrawal deal, which research this week suggested will leave the economy over the next decade 5.5% smaller than if we had remained in the EU. Whatever the outcome of that parliamentary vote, businesses are expecting many more months of uncertainty and upheaval, and the sensible ones have contingency plans in place.
Meanwhile, Londoners will have to put up with inflated rents and property prices for the foreseeable future and the country will continue to fall short on its housing provision. If only we had politicians who instead of promising the impossible focused on what can really be delivered, and then got on with it.
Chloe McCulloch is acting editor of Building
Chloë McCulloch, acting editor, Building