If we covered London like the media covers Africa...

Local strongman "Bambo" Johnson taunts his enemies with a traditional gesture. Image: Getty.

Veteran travellers who criss-cross London, Britain’s booming capital, have no shortage of tales of the extraordinary. A cable car, erected at vast expense to the taxpayer, which has few regular passengers. A custom-made bus, intended to symbolise the city’s bright future, which reaches dangerous levels of heat in the summer months. The city’s Olympic Stadium, which has been given over to West Ham, a football club from London’s shanty towns, for an annual rent of just £2.5m, against an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £700m.

It all comes back to “Bambo” Johnson, the eccentric strongman who is still beloved by the natives, now nearing the end of his term of office, but whose reputation for lavishing taxpayer funds on eye-catching projects has called into question the city’s governance.

The latest boondoggle is the soi-disant “Garden Bridge”, the brainchild of one of the region’s most popular performers, who, as the star of the show Absolutely Fabulous, has delighted the townsfolk for many decades. The bridge’s chief architect is not an architect but a designer, Thomas Heatherwick, who has been the preferred target of Bambo’s largesse. It was Heatherwick who designed the new Routemasters, a paean to the capital’s better days, and part of the atavist streak that has global finance increasingly concerned by the city’s turn away from 21st century thinking.


The cost of the Garden Bridge – intended as a memorial to the deceased Princess of Wales, who has something approaching god-like status among the city’s denizens – has skyrocketed over the years. The taxpayer will now end up paying out £60m into its construction, and close to an additional £4m towards its upkeep*.

International observers are pessimistic about the capital’s hopes of reform. The two candidates most likely to succeed Bambo are the leftist Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, a languid aristocrat who favours an “Out” vote in the country’s coming referendum on its membership of the European Union, despite concerns that this will further disadvantage the locals. Both are committed to maintaining the Garden Bridge.

For those hoping for a city administration that blends innovation with genuine rigour, the 2016 election will bring little respite.

*UPDATE: The Garden Bridge Trust has now been in touch, and asked us to publish the following message for our readers:

“The Bridge will not cost the British taxpayer £60m. £30m of public money has been received from the Department for Transport and £30m from Transport for London but £20m of this will be repayable over a period of time. The public will not be paying for £4m a year for maintenance costs either. Maintenance costs are estimated at £2m a year and will be paid for by the Garden Bridge Trust who have a business plan to raise money through the hosting of private events for the costs.

“Also, just to point out that the Bridge is not dedicated to the memory of the late Princess Diana, this was Joanna Lumley’s original idea.  However this aspect was not really looked at again when the idea of the Bridge started to be looked at seriously in 2012. The idea of the Bridge is for people to be able to cross the bridge in their own time and pace and enjoy new views of London in a tranquil setting.”

Stephen Bush is the editor of our sister site, the Staggers

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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).