The long, hot summer of hustings is drawing to a close, and we’ll soon know which of the prospective mayoral candidates Londoners will have to pick from come May. Housing, transport and inequality have dominated the debate – but what powers will the new Mayor actually have to tackle the most serious challenges facing our capital?
Politicians, policymakers and the public are united in identifying housing as the most important issue facing the future Mayor. From the newlyweds unable to secure a mortgage in South London, to the 35% of households in Newham living in overcrowded conditions, housing is one policy area that impacts most drastically on the lives of almost all Londoners.
Pointing fingers at foreign buyers and greedy developers make for good soundbites, but any real attempt to address London’s housing crisis must tackle a range of issues: the declining number of housing starts; the changing role of housing associations following government reductions in social rents; and public attitudes towards density and development.
When it comes to addressing the lack of affordable housing, most of the Mayor’s powers derive from the ability to develop on Greater London Authority land (some 600 hectares), to invest in transport that will unlock land for development, and to deploy funds through the Mayor’s Affordable Homes Programme (£627m over a four year period). Plus, in the writing of the London Plan, which sets the rules of the game for London’s future development.
How and where these powers are exercised will require the 2016 Mayor to resolve a number of conflicting priorities – namely, balancing land for housing with need for employment space, and the requirement to house London’s most needy in social housing while ensuring the capital’s young professionals can afford to own a home.
The trope of London as a tale of two cities – which features heavily in almost all Mayoral campaigns – is an oversimplification of trends in wealth and income distribution, but there is certainly a challenge for the next Mayor to ensure that London’s future is as a city that is both successful and inclusive. While inequality is by no means a problem limited to the capital, the combination of a dominant financial services sector, rapid growth in house prices, a severe shortage of affordable housing and a squeeze on household incomes means that wealth in London has been radically redistributed across generations and social groups.
Tackling London’s housing crisis plays an important role in minimising one of the most significant drivers of inequality, but ensuring Londoners can access well paid employment is also important. Despite pledges made by certain candidates, the Mayor does not have the power to enforce the London Living Wage – though Centre for London has lobbied for the Mayor being allowed to set a London Minimum Wage. However, the Mayor does have a role in ensuring Londoners have the right skills for employment. This particularly salient given London’s future growth in the tech sector, as has been demonstrated by research into the skills needs of tech companies and youth unemployment in East London. Reducing inequality also means reducing the cost of living (or at least preventing it from rising) by encouraging collaborative consumption, affordable travel fares and improved childcare.
3. London’s role
This election is a parochial one by definition, but any decent mayoral candidate must look beyond the M25 and understand the challenges that London faces in defining itself as a global and capital city. With some 850,000 EU born inhabitants, and with EU trade responsible for 30-40% of total exports, London has much to lose from a potential EU withdrawal. London is not in competition with Bristol and Birmingham, but with Berlin and Barcelona – competing to maintain its position as a global city par excellence. The great aviation debate is more about global connectivity and the UK economy than it is Gatwick versus Heathrow, (although it is worth noting that beyond kicking up a political stink, there is very little the Mayor could do stop any airport getting built once a government decision is made). London’s 2016 Mayor will need to champion London as a global city, and look to London’s international peers and rivals for lessons in effective governance. Mired in the uncertainly of an EU referendum, the Mayor will need to promote a London that is resilient, open and inclusive – a city belonging to all residents and workers, regardless of country of origin or socio-economic status.
Devolution, while very much a hot topic among London’s politicians and policy wonks, has received a more lukewarm reception from Whitehall and the general public. The new Mayor will need to restart stalled negotiations with the Treasury, and work to unite London’s MPs, borough leaders and business voices in lobbying for greater fiscal freedom. The devolution of underfunded services without the devolution of power to raise and allocate taxes means dealing with restructuring and cuts, without being able to raise revenue or redistribute funding. When it comes to services such as healthcare and further education, London should be careful what it wishes for.
5. Transport and tube strikes
At almost £17bn, transport investments represent nearly two thirds of the Mayor’s entire budget. As Boris Johnson has learnt, managing transport in London goes beyond channeling investment – it requires managing change and conflict. The last two years of his administration have been dogged by wrangling over his significant changes to London’s transport network. The installation of the Cycle Superhighway led to challenges from a range of business representative organisations, concerned that not enough consideration had been given to how the works will impact business. More recently, TfL negotiation teams have struggled in discussions with RMT union officials over changes to workers’ rosters due to the roll out of 24 hour tube services.
Beyond this, Boris finding himself caught between Uber and London’s black cab drivers illustrates the need to regulate and manage London’s burgeoning sharing economy, which is set to grow further by 2016. A new Mayor will need to manage these changes, while ensuring that government funding for London’s most important infrastructure projects is secured, including Crossrail 2 and the extension of the Bakerloo line.
So, in contrast to the far-reaching promises of so many mayoral candidates, the actions which the Mayor can take to deal with London’s challenges are less significant than is imagined. Addressing the challenges outlined above will require intelligent deployment of the powers the Mayor does have, plus lobbying for legislative change, and tactical wielding of the soft power and influence that comes with Europe’s second largest direct electorate.
Kat Hanna is Research Manager at Centre for London