Who is Sadiq Khan – and what are his priorities now he's mayor of London?

London's new mayor, in fine fettle. Image: Getty.

Sadiq Khan, the Labour MP for Tooting, has just been elected as the third mayor of London. We're still waiting for the final count (and will update this post when we have it); but it will show that he's the winner. 

London’s new mayor was born in 1970, the fifth of eight siblings born to Pakistani parents living in a council estate in Earlsfield. His father, as he has on occasion mentioned during his mayoral campaign, was a bus driver.

Khan studied law at the University of North London, and became a human rights lawyer, before entering parliament in 2005. He served in Gordon Brown’s Labour government as junior minister for communities, and then, in 2009, became the first Muslim to attend Cabinet as transport minister. He kept the brief when he joined the shadow cabinet after Labour’s election defeat the following year.

Khan’s victory makes him the first Muslim to serve as the mayor of a major western capital. (While we’re doing facts and figures: around 12 per cent of Londoners identify as Muslims.)

So, what does London’s new mayor want to do? Here’s a brief rundown of his priorities...

Building more housing

Khan has promised to set up a new agency called “Homes for Londoners”, which will, well, build a lot more homes. That means using his “planning, funding, and land powers alongside new experts to raise investment, assemble land”.

He’s promised he’ll focus his efforts on publicly owned brownfield land – stuff owned by Transport for London (TfL) and so forth. He’s promised he won’t touch the green belt, and he’s implied he doesn’t think much of skyscrapers. (Those things will impose a limit on how fixed this crisis gets, by hey.)

Make sure housing is more affordable

On top of that, Khan has promised support for councils and housing associations to build more social housing. He’ll also create a “London Living Rent”, a new class of properties in which rents are a third of average local wages (details pending). And he’ll make sure new homes will be offered to Londoners first (ditto).

He’s also promised to improve life for renters, by setting up a London-wide, not for profit lettings agency, creating a landlord licensing scheme.

Transport

Khan has promised to freeze transport fares for four years. And he’s said he’ll create a one hour bus “Hopper” ticket, with which you can switch buses without paying a second fare.

He’s also promised to back Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo line extension – but since the first set of pledges will do horrible things to TfL’s finances, it’s not entirely clear how. He’s promised to explore “new revenue raising opportunities”, but still, hmmm.

Oh, and he’s promised to keep building cycle lanes and to make walking nicer, too.

Sorting out air pollution

Khan says this one is important to him (his manifesto contained the revelation that he suffers from adult-onset asthma).

So, he’s promising to consult on an Ultra-Low Emission Zone. He’s also looking into “Clean Bus Corridors” – that is, replacing polluting buses with new clean ones along the most polluted roads. And from 2020, he says, TfL will only buy clean electric or hydrogen buses.

Khan has also promised to deliver charging infrastructure for electric cars, and to “embark on a major tree-planting programme across London”.

Oh, and he’s opposed to a third runway at Heathrow Airport. That’s another one of those policies we’re putting in the “let’s see if it survives contact with the enemy” pile.

And the rest...

Among the assorted other things Sadiq Khan has claimed will be his priorities, he has promised he will:

  • Restore neighbourhood policing, and tackle gangs and knife crime;
  • Review the resourcing of our fire service;
  • Be “the most pro-business mayor yet”;
  • “Work with employers to make London a Living Wage City”;
  • “Challenge gender inequality” and “remove the barriers to women’s success”;
  • “Make London a fairer and more tolerant city”;

That’s a lot of big promises to live up to.

London has just given Sadiq Khan a hell of a mandate. Let’s see what he does with it.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and tweets too much.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.