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 smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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