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Posted: 28.03.24

Race for City Hall: The Mayor’s role in delivering new homes

It feels as though housing delivery, or a lack of it, is rarely out of the headlines. It was recently  reported in the Financial Times that Michael Gove’s decision to scrap Whitehall-imposed housing targets last December was already reducing the amount of housing being developed, particularly in Green Belt or rural areas.

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It feels as though housing delivery, or a lack of it, is rarely out of the headlines. It was recently  reported in the Financial Times that Michael Gove’s decision to scrap Whitehall-imposed housing targets last December was already reducing the amount of housing being developed, particularly in Green Belt or rural areas. This monumentally unsurprising headline pithily demonstrates the challenge of housing delivery; politicians are caught between the constant cries for ’the right homes in the right places‘ and ’giving communities a voice‘ and the perennial truth: Britain desperately needs more homes - if possible, as soon as yesterday.

As the mayoral election approaches, this challenge is felt particularly keenly in London. Despite around 75,000 people reportedly leaving  the capital during the pandemic, that has since been more than reversed, according to research from Centre for Cities which shows significant inward migration to the capital between 2021 and 2023. The think tank has also warned that the failure to carry out large-scale investments into infrastructure and housing will ‘constrain London’s potential.’ Politicians in London, as elsewhere, therefore need to deliver on solving the housing crisis, and to be seen to deliver.

Housing delivery can feel like an undigestible challenge, precisely because it consists of so many variables: How many homes need to be built? What kind of homes should they be? Where should we build them? What should they look like? How many should be social rent? How many should be affordable and what-oh-what does affordable even mean? All of these questions are what Sadiq Khan is facing as he prepares his housing policy for what would be an historic third term at City Hall.

Against this backdrop, Sadiq Khan has launched his re-election campaign, claiming that the election is a ‘once in a generation’ chance to ease the capital’s housing crisis and pledging to deliver 40,000 new council homes by 2030 in what he branded the ‘greatest council homebuilding drive in a generation.’  Despite placing housing front-and-centre of his campaign, Khan’s record has come in for strongly-worded criticism from his Conservative rival for City Hall, Susan Hall, who derided his target as one that ’mostly consists of existing homes or those already started.’

The opportunities for cheap political point-scoring are, as always, endless – but how good has Khan’s record on housebuilding really been? Last year saw planning approvals in London hit their lowest levels since 2010. At the same time, there has been a reported 76% drop in the number of affordable homes due to be started this year. Housing completions have been tracking downwards since a high in 2015, although housing starts are showing a very healthy upward trend from a pandemic-mandated low in 2020. But none of this really proves causation. Politics does not exist in a vacuum and wars overseas, a pandemic, wage-price spirals and innumerable factors influence the ability to actually get concrete in the ground and glass towers in the air.

The Government, and Secretary of State Michael Gove in particular, has long blamed Khan for the lack of housing delivery in the metropolis but when planning legislation affecting the capital is a sometimes contradictory smorgasbord of London-specific and nationwide planning policy, it is surely not that simple. Last week, the Housing Secretary directed Khan to review parts of the London Plan, which he said is ‘holding back housebuilding due to its complexity’ and tasked the Mayor with reviewing the amount of land allocated for industrial sites and any potential for new housing developments, along with whether sufficient housing is being built in the Mayor’s 47 ‘Opportunity Areas.’ Some commentators, understandably, viewed Gove’s intervention as being rather cynically-timed, coming as it did the day before pre-election period commenced for the mayoral election.

The major political opportunity for housing delivery though is not about the issues or the policies- it is about the timing. For the first time in sixteen years, the polling suggests London could have both a Labour Mayor and a Labour Government in Westminster. Both Khan and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have made clear that they see the potential political convergence as a huge opportunity: “The point Keir and I are both making today, is that the real gamechanger though would be a Labour mayor working with a Labour government,” Khan said as he launched his campaign alongside the Labour Leader last Monday.

Some readers may be forgiven for thinking that a number of assumptions underpin this analysis. What if Susan Hall, or even less likely Rishi Sunak, pulls a rabbit out of the political hat and the anticipated convergence of Labour government and Labour Mayor does not materialise? What does Susan Hall propose to do about London’s housing delivery problem? Conveniently, Hall has set out her vision for leadership in a neat Five-Point Plan (where have we heard that idea before?). Hall’s plan for housing looks clear, in theory: Out with tower blocks and threats to the green belt; in with family homes on public brownfield sites. The mantra from Hall is ’high density, not high rise.’ There is possibly an argument to be made that the public knows more about Hall’s plans for housing than they do of the man who has lead London since 2016.

But ambition and reality do not always marry up and it doesn’t take an above-average level of cynicism to question whether Hall’s plan could deliver enough new homes in practice. Plus, if polls are to be believed, Hall is still very much the underdog in this race..

It seems likely then that Khan could find himself enabled and emboldened to act on housing delivery, in a reinvigorated mayoralty with a spring it its step and a potentially supportive government in Westminster. In closing though, I sound a note of caution: government is a difficult business, and when faced with an unenviable in-tray could cracks open up again between the two, as they did over ULEZ?

Politics is the art of the possible and delivering homes in a way which pleases everyone is as close to impossible as it gets.