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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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