While the coronavirus outbreak has led to the postponement of all local and mayoral elections in England for a year to May 2021, we thought now would still be a good time to explore how Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London, has performed with regards to housing during his firm term in City Hall.
The Mayor of London is one of the most influential figureheads outside of central government, and while the actual powers the leader of City Hall possesses are fairly limited, the Mayor does have a lot of soft power and a very high-profile global status.
Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, the two previous mayors of London before Khan, both left their imprint on the role with two terms in City Hall apiece – from the Oyster Card, the congestion charge and the Olympics to Boris bikes – and the current Mayor will be hoping he can keep his recent poll momentum going and win a second term in May next year.
He’s so far overseen the introduction of the long-awaited Night Tube and the popular Hopper fare scheme, while also scrapping the controversial Garden Bridge scheme he inherited from his predecessor. Additionally, he’s been the leading voice on the capital’s ‘London is open’ stance since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
At the same time, he’s had to deal with a range of challenges, including the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, numerous terror attacks and the Extinction Rebellion protests. He’s faced frequent criticism from the American President Donald Trump, which he’s attempted to use to his advantage (famously allowing an over-sized baby blimp at a number of protests against Trump’s state visit), and has also faced questions marks over affordable housing and his record on tackling knife crime.
But what about housing, which before the last mayoral election in May 2016 (a month before Brexit overtook everything) was seen as the top political issue for voters in the capital.
Khan called that election – which saw him secure a resounding win over Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith after a bitterly fought campaign – a ‘referendum’ on housing, an echo of his refrain this time around that the now postponed May 7 election will be a referendum on rent controls.
How many of the promises he made then, though, has he been able to meet?
‘Homes for Londoners’ and 80,000 new homes a year
During his pitch to become Mayor, Khan said he would set up ‘Homes for Londoners’, a team based at City Hall whose job it would be to ensure that half of all new homes built by developers and local authorities are genuinely affordable.
While the team has been set up - and plays a key role in running things such as the £10 million Homebuilding Fund, the Land Fund and the Innovation Fund - critics question the number of affordable homes Khan has overseen against his previous promises.
Recently released figures suggest that 12,546 affordable homes were started in the capital between March and December 2019 through Greater London Authority (GLA) programmes, up from just 6,066 homes the year before.
While City Hall insists the Mayor is set to deliver his target of starting 17,000 new affordable homes in 2019/20, Conservative members of the London Assembly pounced on the fact that just over 12,000 affordable homes have been completed since Khan became mayor in May 2016 - despite 34,515 starts.
Khan’s office hit back by saying that the 17,000 affordable starts target is double the number achieved by Boris Johnson during his last two years in City Hall combined.
Housing is deemed affordable by the GLA if it’s for social rent or falls under the banner of London Affordable Rent, London Living Rent or London Shared Ownership.
As for his pledge to build a minimum of 80,000 new homes per year, with a long-term plan for half of these to be genuinely affordable, the goalposts seem to have been changed somewhat.
Last year he said he wanted to build 65,000 new homes a year to keep up with demand from London’s rapidly rising population, but during the drafting of a new London Plan – the planning document that sets the framework for building in the capital for at least a decade – he was forced to reduce this target to 52,000 a year in line with recommendations from planning inspectors.
The inspectors’ report, published in October 2019 after 12 weeks of public hearings, rejected Khan’s proposals for nearly 250,000 new homes on small sites, predominantly in Outer London, over the next decade. The overall targets have now been reduced from 650,000 homes by 2029 to 520,000, while the small sites target has been cut from 245,730 new homes to 119,250.
According to Savills, nearly 41,000 new homes were built in London last year. While this figure is almost 2,500 more than in 2015, the year before Khan took office, London housebuilding has also grown slower than any other region.
Khan, who made much of the fact he was born on a council estate during his mayoralty bid, said he would invest heavily in social and council housing. He secured more than £4.8 billion from the government to help start building at least 116,000 affordable homes by March 2022 – many of which would be socially rented and council-built homes - but as we can see above his record on affordable housing and starts is hotly disputed.
A not-for-profit letting agency for the whole of London
One of Khan’s other main pledges before the last mayoral election was to establish a London-wide, not-for-profit lettings agency, designed to ‘promote longer-term, stable tenancies for responsible tenants and good landlords across London’.
In April 2017, during Mayor’s Question Time, Khan was asked to provide an update on this pledge. He said: “The main need for a not-for-profit London lettings agency was to help tenants by tackling rip-off letting agent fees. Having succeeded in convincing the government to do this, I am now considering how best to take this area of work forward.”
Since then, there has been virtually nothing in the public domain about this proposal and the idea appears to have been quietly shelved. The work carried out to ban tenant fees – finally introduced in June last year – has probably made its creation less necessary, while the Mayor has acted to introduce a rogue landlord and agent checker.
All London councils have agreed to participate in the Checker, which includes information about private landlords and letting agents who have been prosecuted or fined. It also includes information about landlord and agent offences submitted by the London Fire Brigade and the two letting agent consumer redress schemes, The Property Redress Scheme and The Property Ombudsman.
Records only stay on the system for a limited time and only landlords and agents who’ve been fined or convicted of a relevant housing offence will appear, but the scheme has been praised for being more effective, open and transparent than the government’s equivalent rogue landlord database.
Crackdown on ‘Buy to Leave’ and a battle with short-lets
A big part of Khan’s initial pitch to voters involved a crackdown on ‘Buy to Leave’ – where investors, often from overseas, purchase property only to watch it rise in value rather than to live in it or rent it out.
There hasn’t been a huge deal of decisive action on this front, although the Mayor might be pleased with the recent government action – announced in last week’s Budget – to levy an additional 2% surcharge on non-UK residents from April 2021.
In September 2017, he called for a curb on wealthy overseas property investors who buy homes in London and then leave them empty. He asked for the government to allow London’s boroughs to increase council tax bills for high-value homes that are not occupied. It followed a report he commissioned, carried out by London School of Economics and the University of York, analysing the contribution of overseas investment to new housing supply, as well as public concerns over homes being sold to overseas buyers and kept empty.
It suggested there were greater numbers of empty homes in prime and expensive locations. The government recently pointed to the report as evidence when it was outlining its plans for the extra stamp duty surcharge.
Like every mayor of a major, tourist-heavy city, Khan has also had his battles with the rapidly growing short-lets market. In May last year, he was urged to ban Tube adverts encouraging landlords to break short-let laws (by September, Transport for London had taken action to do so), and in April 2019 he called for a registration system to enforce short-term letting law.
He said the law to cap short-term lets in London to 90 nights a year, introduced in 2015, was near-impossible for councils to enforce, with only Airbnb so far implementing a voluntary cap following City Hall’s call.
He called for a light-touch registration system so the 90-day rule could be enforced and long-term rented housing protected.
A further pledge of Khan’s was to convert land owned by TfL into housing. However, figures last year showed that only 322 homes had been built on TfL land. In May 2016, TfL set itself a target to build 10,000 homes by 2020. This target was later revised to 10,000 homes by 2021, but has been spectacularly missed.
On balance, it’s difficult to make a firm judgement on Khan’s housing record. He’s certainly failed on his TfL pledge and his plans to introduce a London-wide lettings agency, but his record on affordable housing and new homes is far more nuanced and he has made some good interventions on curbing the short-term lets market and rogue landlords and agents.
Khan will have at least another year in office thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the long-term impact of the virus could have a significant effect on his chances of improving his housing record before Londoners are asked to return to the polls.