Skip to main content

What is simultaneously the most significant cause of London’s decline and Sadiq Khan’s greatest failing as Mayor? It is, of course, the failure to deliver new homes, which has devastated London’s economy. The housing crisis has taken a particularly heavy toll on the lives of working-age Londoners, who are priced out of homeownership and ripped off by rents that are rising faster than wages. Sadiq Khan has shown he is both ideologically and managerially incapable of delivery – the net is wide open for a more ambitious Conservative housebuilding agenda. 

One only has to do the lightest research to be overwhelmed by the evidence of London’s housing challenge. The UK has some of the smallest and most expensive homes in the OECD, with the average Londoner having the same-sized living space as a Tokyoite. This housing shortage has fueled rocketing rent prices; a report by City Hall last month found that low-income Londoners in their late twenties now spend 77% of their income on housing. It rightly concludes that “young Londoners face an almost impossible situation of high rents and house prices that are out of kilter with incomes.”

The housing crisis is not just impacting poorer Londoners, Rightmove’s latest house price index put the price of the average London home at an eye-watering £686,844. That means even high-earning young people find it more difficult to buy and remain stuck in the high-rent trap. Those in their forties cannot afford family homes, so it is unsurprising that, also, fertility rates are nosediving. This is not because of personal failure, as dubiously suggested by some commentators, but policy failure. 

The economic impact is dire, as ever larger numbers are pushed out of London, sacrificing the compounding economic benefit that a city’s proximity should provide. The cost of skyrocketing rents is passed on to businesses; look at the over 1,000 venue closures during the reign of Khan’s nightlife Czar, Amy Lamé. 

Despite the slick spin of Khan’s PR, his record on housing is poor. As pointed out by Guido Fawkes in February, the official Greater London Authority (GLA) target for affordable housing starts until 2026 is 23,900-27,100 per year. In the last three quarters, Khan has managed just 874 – a dismal 4% of the target. Council house starts under the £4.8 billion ‘Building Council Homes for Londoners’ programme in May number exactly zero.

Khan has not just failed, but has become an active hindrance. An independent review found “persuasive evidence that the combined effect of the multiplicity of policies in the London Plan work to frustrate rather than facilitate the delivery of new homes on brownfield sites, not least in terms of creating very real challenges to viability … Without a step change, it is highly unlikely that the housing targets of the London Plan will be met within its 10-year period and, as a consequence, the current housing crisis will continue, if not worsen.” Working-age people do not want this and will reward the party brave enough to take action. 

Khan’s failures are ideological in origin, evidenced by his enthusiasm for social housing over private delivery. This mindset ignores that the planning system is holding back building rather than boogeyman developers, whom the left finds more comfort in blaming. His calls for rent-capping powers overlook the lack of evidence for their effectuality and portray an ignorance of supply-side reform as the only way to temper growing demand in the long term. 

It is Khan’s phobia of market forces that will pave the way for a new centre-right pitch in London. Conservatives can champion a market-based approach to unlocking new homes, offering to use the Mayor’s powers towards a new era of house building. Committing to go beyond London’s pre-war house building peak of 80,000 per year should be the minimum. In a world where the ingrained system kicks back hard against housing delivery, we need elected Conservative politicians to set a clear direction and be accountable. 

Britain Remade’s recent Get London Building report provides wonderful ideation for a Conservative renaissance in London. Building density around train stations, revising urban land use and regenerating run-down estates could unlock hundreds of thousands of homes. These measures are all within the Mayor’s gift through the London Mayoral Plan, Mayoral Development Orders (MDOs) and the ability to drive through significant housing applications. 

Conservatives have always been best when delivering – just look at Macmillan’s housing boom or Heseltine’s redevelopment of London’s Docklands. Making this pitch could win back working-age people who have turned away from the Conservative Party party in droves. Britain Remade estimates that copying successful policies from New Zealand would create a £6,000 saving for a young family renting the average two-bed. Offering young people a home of their own or significantly lowered rental costs would be a slam dunk, but to win voters’ trust, it must become front and centre of our pitch. 

It is time for Conservatives to start a new conversation about who we are and what we stand for in London. The old maxim that we can win a small section of outer London and hope inner London does not turn out has been tested to destruction. There is now an opportunity to win both inner and outer London by building the homes we desperately need. Susan Hall’s recognition of the challenge has been a welcome first step. We must now be bolder in articulating the scale of change that needs to come about, whilst also holding Khan to account for his failures. 

Naturally, some who are reading this will guffaw at the notion of a YIMBY Conservative party. This is not unwarranted, given some of our MPs’ more militant NIMBY tendencies, but the Conservative Party’s strength has always been in redefining itself around the challenges of the day. Backing measures to increase density in inner London is the perfect sweet spot – providing the biggest economic boost whilst minimising outer London voters’ disgruntlement. 

Sceptics will say we cannot risk offending our voter base in an attempt to deliver for younger people and those living in inner London. I argue that the need for action will only become more pressing; the choice now is how long we swim against the rising tide. 

James Cowling is the Founder and Managing Director of Next Gen Tories and an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of Bright Blue.

[Image: jjfarq]