London mayoral race: Why won't Labour's candidates get serious about housing?

It's getting crowded in here in more ways than one. Left of the chair: Diane Abbott, Tessa Jowell, Christian Wolmar. Right of the chair: Gareth Thomas, David Lammy, Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

You know, as the summer's gone on, the Labour party has begun to depress me a bit.

It isn't just that the party looks all but certain to select as its leader yet another white man from North London, whose views on foreign affairs are, well, no, perhaps this isn't the place for that. No, it's that, in the parallel race to become the party's candidate for the London mayoralty, all the housing policies on offer are all so bloody wet.

This assessment may surprise some because, as in almost any conversation about London, housing has popped up in the mayoral race rather a lot. On the surface, at least, the candidates for the Labour nomination have talked about housing loads. Some have backed rent controls; others have talked landlord licensing.


In all, no fewer than four of the six (yes, there are six) candidates have listed housing as the main theme of their campaign. Whoever the party picks, it seems probable that Labour's mayoral candidate will promise to toughen up the requirement on developers to build affordable housing.

So why am I still so bloody miserable about the whole thing? Because the housing problem is, at root, a land problem. And, with only a single exception, Labour's field hasn’t even gone near the land question.

The reason London has a housing crisis is simple. The city's population is shooting up, and its housing stock isn't shooting up to meet it. A pretty big reason for that is that the city is, to the first approximation, full: there just isn't that much land left to build on.

Faced with such a situation, a city is faced with two choices. It can expand outwards; or it can redevelop previously built-up areas ("brownfield") at higher densities, to shove stuff more in. London, thanks to its green belt, has for decades focused entirely on the latter. Five of Labour's six potential mayors have said, very clearly, that this would not change under their leadership.

Image: Neal Hudson/Savills, with labels by CityMetric.

But there’s a problem with this “brownfield first” strategy: it is, by its very nature, achingly slow. There's no enthusiasm whatsoever for knocking down chunks of the city and doing them again. So we've had to make do with individual sites, which are often titchy; or larger areas that aren't already populated, which are normally contaminated or a long way from anywhere or both.

The Thames Gateway is a case in point. A vast stretch of former industrial land by the river east of Docklands, it’s been talked off as London's salvation for decades. But it’d cost so much to redevelop that most builders don’t fancy the job, it's got no public transport to speak of, and nobody wants to live there anyway because it's horrible. It's an answer to the question, "Shit, where can we build something?" but it's not going to address the sheer number of people trying to squeeze into zone 2.

London's population grows by that much about once every three years. It's not even an entire mayoral term

Labour's runners and riders would no doubt respond that they aren't simply pursuing the same strategy as their predecessors. Several have talked about asking the Treasury for new borrowing powers, to get councils building again (good luck with that). The most impressive plan for increasing building rates is probably Tessa Jowell's proposed Homes for Londoners agency, which would arrange funding and assemble land to get the market moving.

These are good ideas. But they don't solve the land problem, because however badly used publically-owned land is at the moment it remains in horribly short supply. Jowell has said that TfL owns the land the size of the London Borough of Camden, which is home to around 235,000 people. That sound like a lot – but at current rates, London's population grows by that much about once every three years. It's not even an entire mayoral term.


If we're to have a hope of putting a brake on the insane speed with which London property prices are rising, the next mayor has to go further than redeveloping a few railway yards.

There are, as far as I can see, two options. One is knocking down large areas and rebuilding them at higher densities. But that means either widespread use of compulsory purchase, evicting social tenants, or both – so, despite support from figures like Lord Adonis it’s hard to see this one coming off.

The other is to build outwards: look at the bits of green belt that aren't working in London's interests, and where the only reason we protect them is because everyone’s terrified of the thin-end-of-the-wedge lobby.

Only one mayoral candidate has had the guts to talk about this. Step forward David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, who has warned that the current regulations "protect wasteland and car parks in Outer London but not parks/playing fields in Inner London". He's right.  So why have none of the others agreed with him?

Politics, is the obvious answer: to win back the mayoralty, Labour needs to win in outer London again. "Let's build on the green belt" is not a message calculated to make that happen.

But if London’s next mayor really wants to solve the housing crisis, they’ll either have to move the city towards large scale rebuilding works, or renegotiate the green belt. Those are the options. There are no others.

I understand why Tessa Jowell or Sadiq Khan aren’t talking about tearing up the green belt. What frightens me is the chance they might mean it. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

 
 
 
 

The Delhi Metro: How do you build a transport system for 26m people?

Indraprastha station in 2006. Image: Getty.

“Thou hath not played rugby until thou hath tried to get onto a Delhi Metro in rush hour,” a wise Yogi once said.

If you’ve never been on New Delhi’s Metro, your mind might conjure up the the conventional image of Indian trains: tawdry carriages, buckets of sweat, people hanging out of windows and the odd holy cow wandering around for good measure.

Well, no. The Delhi Metro is actually one of the most marvellously sophisticated, affordable, timely, and practical public transportation systems out there. On a 45C day in the Indian summer, many a traveller has shed tears of joy on entering the spacious, air-conditioned carriages.

Above ground, Delhi is a sprawling metropolis of the scariest kind: 26m people, three times the population of London, churn and grind through Delhi itself.

The National Capital Region, an area which includes Delhi and its surrounding satellite cities – now victim of its never-ending urban sprawl – has an estimated population of almost 50m. So how do you tie such a huge population together?

The map; click to expand. Image: Delhi Metro Rail.

Motorised vehicles won’t do it alone. For one, air pollution is a horrific problem in Delhi, as it is across India. Last November, the government declared a state of emergency when the Indian capital was engulfed by a toxic, choking fog so thick that you could barely see several metres in front of you, drawing allusions to the great Victorian fogs in London.

Then there’s Delhi’s famous traffic. Twenty-five years ago, the travel writer William Dalrymple observed that you could reduce the Delhi’s road laws to one simple idea: the largest vehicle always had the right of way. The traffic has tamed somewhat in the 21st century, but the number of vehicles has multiplied again and again, and it’s not uncommon for people to be stuck in four-hour traffic jams when they try to traverse the mighty city.

Enter the Delhi Metro – a huge network of 164 over- and underground stations – and by any account, a titan of civil engineering and administration.

The numbers are simply colossal. Every day the metro serves on average almost 3m people. Annually, it carries around 1bn.

In a country where intercity trains still turn up a day late, the Delhi Metro is extraordinarily timely. On the major lines, trains will come every several minutes. The trains are extraordinary speedy, and you’ll reach your destination in a fraction of the time it would take for you to drive the distance.

The minimum fare is 10 rupees (12p); the maximum fare, to and from the airport, is 50 (60p).

The evolution of the metro. Image: Terramorphus/Wikimedia Commons.

Construction of the metro system began in 1998, with the first section completed in late 2002. Keen to avoid the catastrophic corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement which plagued eastern city of the Kolkata Metro, developers took advice from Hong Kong’s high-tech system There have been several stages of development to add extra lines; more is planned. By 2020, it is hoped that the 135 miles of line will have increased to over 300.  

One thing quite striking about the metro is its women’s only carriages at the rear and the front of the train, marked by pink signs. Sexual assault and harassment has been a horrific problem on Delhi’s transport systems. Women can of course go anywhere on the train – but men who violate the carriage system will have to deal with the scathing anger of the entire pink carriage.


One of the under-discussed impacts of widespread and well-used public transportation systems is their propensity to break down social and class barriers over time. As the London Tube began to be used more and more in early 20th century London, people from completely different walks of life and classes began to brush shoulders and share the same air.

The story is similar in Delhi. The necessity of the metro helps to break down old caste and class divisions. Of course, many elite Delhiites would not be seen dead on the metro, and choose their private chauffeur over brushing shoulders with the common man. But slowly and surely, the times are a changing.

What’s more, the Delhi Metro system is one of the greenest around. Six years ago, the Metro was the first railway system in the world to be awarded carbon credits from the United Nations for helping to reduce pollution in the capital by an estimated 640,000 tonnes every year.  

All praises sung and said, however, at peak times it’s less mind the gap and more mind your ribs – as a fifth of humanity seems to try to get on and off the train at once.

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