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.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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