Should mayors rule the world?

Imagine this, but on the internet. Image: RogDel at Wikimedia Commons.

In 2013, Benjamin Barber, a US political theorist, published a book called If mayors ruled the world: dysfunctional nations, rising cities. It was not, as one might guess, the fantasy project of an aggrieved public official, but a set of ideas about how cities and mayors could fix problems afflicting people all over the world.

Now, Barber’s co-authored a report with two other urbanists, Richard Florida and Don Tapscott, which lays out more concrete plans for mayoral world takeover. The report argues that countries are held back by their “sovereignty”: they’re not great at cooperating with other countries and are often tied up with their own internal politics. Mayors, the theory goes, are more practical: as New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia once said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer”. Additionally, the report claims, cities share an “indifference to borders and sovereignty, and a democratic penchant for networking”.

To capitalise on these qualities, the report’s authors are planning a Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM). This will be made up of mayors and other “key urban stakeholders”: code, best we can tell, for political advisors and urban specialists.


The GPM’s goals include sharing solutions to issues like climate chance and pollution, writing “model city ordinances” to be used by member cities, and creating a global database of city information. It would rely on “consensus” rather than formal voting, and wouldn’t be able to make or enforce laws. Cities could leave whenever they wanted, and could implement the GPM’s recommendations in whichever way they see fit.

As with any self-respecting 21st century organisation, the parliament would be digital-first (no bad thing, in this age of tight municipal travel budgets). In the report’s words, the GPM would “operate as a global urban network with a vibrant online community that collaborates on key issues 365 days a year”. The founders have even got Steve Caswell, an early pioneer of e-mail and e-conferencing, involved.

There’ve already been several planning sessions for the parliament, with another planned for September, but there’s no word yet on when the first “Pilot Parliament” will take place. Watch this space.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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