Perhaps the memory cheats, but I really don’t remember housing coming up very much in London’s first few mayoral elections. The 2000 one was largely about whether the capital was going to annoy Tony Blair by voting for Ken Livingstone over the New Labour-approved Frank Dobson. The next couple took place at the height of a boom in which everyone either thought rising house prices a good thing, or else believed they weren’t but assumed a correction must be coming.
It’s really only the last couple of elections, after the crunch came but the crash didn’t, in which anyone remotely normal started to care about housing policy, and candidates for Mayor have felt the need to start talking about it.
This election they’ve talked about it rather a lot. The Liberal Democrat candidate Luisa Porritt is promising to create a London Housing Company, which would build affordable homes and investigate office-to-residential conversions; the Green’s Sian Berry is talking about a People’s Land Commission to find sites and increase support for new homes.
Meanwhile, the Tories’ Shaun Bailey is promising to build 100,000 homes, and sell them to first-time buyers for the attractive, if not entirely convincing, price of £100,000 each. Then there’s Sadiq Khan, who has set himself a target of building 10,000 new council homes, and giving the City Hall housing department first refusal on all public land suitable for housing. It’s great that, after so many years of neglect, London’s leaders are finally grappling with its housing supply problem. So it’s with some trepidation that I ask — is it possible that those of us who’ve been banging on about the need to build more houses might have been, well, wrong?
An oft-repeated assumption holds that London needs to build around 50,000 homes a year to keep up with demand, more than twice the number it’s actually managing. That, though, was for a pre-Covid world in which the city’s population was growing by around 100,000 each year. The pandemic has seen an exodus and if the trend towards home working persists, more people may choose fresh air and space over an easy commute to Zone One. Perhaps the old world and its population growth will return; perhaps it won’t. We probably won’t know for sure for some time — but it’s at least possible that London no longer needs quite so many new homes.
It would be tempting to assume that this meant the crisis was over, and to move on to other things. That would be a mistake. For one thing, London has been failing to build enough homes for decades. Even if the experts are right, and London’s population has fallen by 300,000, it’s still unlikely to have enough homes to comfortably house the people it contains. More than that, there are other aspects to the housing crisis. The share of London households living in privately-rented homes now stands at over a quarter, up nine percentage points since the early Eighties. Those renters face a toxic combination of short and insecure tenures, high deposits which many never get back, limited and under-enforced regulation concerning the upkeep of rented properties (whether, for example, the boiler lives up to its name), and a legal system in which they can be evicted at short notice for almost any reason.
Many landlords are decent people, who feel a responsibility to provide decent homes; many others are not, and it’s pot luck which the tenant ends up with. What’s more, with social housing in short supply and house prices heading for the stratosphere, many may be stuck in the private rental sector forever. How ever the pandemic ends, that housing crisis seems likely to persist.
The Mayor has few powers to improve this situation directly, but by campaigning and agitating can do rather a lot. Khan has already introduced a database of rogue landlords, and claims credit for ministers’ plans to ban letting agent fees. This election, he’s pledged to lobby the Government for the powers to introduce rent controls, intervene in short-term lets such as Airbnb, and approve new landlord licensing schemes introduced at borough level.
Whether these plans are realistic, or whether the Mayor can really take credit for ministerial decisions, is an open question. But it is striking that the policies listed on Bailey’s campaign website do not touch the issue. Perhaps the pandemic will bring London’s long population boom to an end — but that doesn’t mean the housing crisis is over, too. The next Mayor still has a job to do — whoever they may be.