Are councillors with dual-mandates beneficial to Londoners – or a waste of public money?

London! Image: Christine Matthews via Creative Commons.

Now that the dust has settled from seemingly annual tradition of making Londoners vote in at least one major election a year, and with nothing planned for 2019 (dare you, Theresa), we can settle down for a bit of governing continuity in the capital.

There is, however, one aspect of London’s politics that is somewhat overlooked; the dual-mandates that councillors possess as elected officials. These are the councillors that are also members of the Greater London Authority (GLA), House of Commons, or House of Lords. But are dual-mandates actually any use?

Cant get a mandate?

Often misunderstood is that councillors are more powerful than other politicians on matters such as libraries, bins, social care, and, perhaps most significantly for Londoners, housing.

When it comes to planning, for example, councillors are involved throughout the entire process and ultimately decide applications at committee; all the while having to juggle the budgetary restrictions imposed by a national government with policy pressures from the GLA.

Having these decision-makers in local government who are also working across different tiers of government could well be beneficial, then. Their increased time, resources, and responsibility creates a different understanding of these issues by possessing multiple perspectives. This provides an invaluable asset for local government infrastructure already completely lacking in investment.

Today’s examples of dual-mandates span the political divide as well – aside from Ukip, which is about as about as electable in London as a sentient Clapham North tube station (although Suzanne Evans was briefly a councillor in Merton at the same time as being a national spokesperson for the party). Anyway, here is a list of those with dual-mandates in 2018:

Conservatives

Gareth Bacon is leader of the London Conservatives, GLA member for Bexley and Bromley, and councillor for Longlands ward in Bexley. He was formerly the Conservative spokesperson for regeneration in the GLA and gave up his private-sector job in order to devote time to both elected roles, once making him the highest paid councillor in London.

Steve O’Connell is the GLA member for Croydon and Sutton, and a councillor for Kenley ward in Croydon, where he is shadow cabinet member for communities. A trustee at Crystal Palace Football Club, who’s Selhust Park is seeking planning permission, he is also chair of the GLA’s police & crime committee.

Tony Devenish is the GLA member for West Central, sitting on three different GLA committees: planning, housing, and regeneration. He is also a councillor for Knightsbridge and Belgravia ward in Westminster, where he sits on the planning & city development committee, as well as chairing a planning sub-committee.

Susan Hall is a London-wide GLA member and also a councillor for Hatch End ward in Harrow. Previously leader of Harrow Council from 2013-14, and very active in local politics, she is also chair of both the GLA’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee, and the economy committee.

A note also, on the triple-mandate once held by Conservative Victoria Borwick from 2015-16, when she was MP for Kensington, a councillor for Abingdon ward in Kensington & Chelsea, and a London-wide member of the GLA. Impressive.


Labour

Emma Dent-Coad MP is a long-standing councillor for Golbourne ward in Kensington and Chelsea, where she led the opposition between 2014-15 and has sat on the council’s planning committee. Her Kensington parliamentary constituency contains Grenfell Tower, where she has been influential in setting out the policy implications for local government nationwide through her “After Grenfell” report.

Leonie Cooper is GLA member for Merton and Wandsworth and a councillor for Furzedown in Wandsworth. She is co-chair of Sera (Labour’s environment campaign) and is deputy chair of the GLA’s environment committee, as well as being a member of the housing committee.

Tom Copley is a London-wide GLA member and councillor for Sydenham ward in Lewisham. He has led on a number of planning issues, including the balloting of tenants for estate regeneration. He is deputy chair of the GLA's housing committee, and also sits on both the planning and the transport committees.

Janet Daby, newly elected MP for Lewisham East, is a Lewisham councillor for Whitefoot ward where she was serving as deputy mayor prior to the election. The most recent dual-mandate intake, she looks set to continue in both of these roles.

Greens

Sian Berry is leader of the GLA Greens as a London-wide member and also councillor for Highgate ward in Camden. As chair of the GLA’s housing committee, she has campaigned on the issues of private renting and estate regeneration, and is expected to become the party’s co-leader in 2018.

Caroline Russell is a London-wide GLA member where she is chair of the environment committee and represents Highbury East ward in Islington. She is the party’s national spokesperson for transport, and has been an ardent critic of the Heathrow expansion as well as providing the sole opposition on Islington Council.

Jonathan Bartley is also co-leader of the Green Party and has just been elected to St Leonards ward in Lambeth where he is now leader of the opposition on the council. He will be running for a second term as co-leader in 2018. (You’re right, this is not technically a dual-mandate. But interesting, no?)

Liberal Democrats

Okay I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel now, but only because the currently elected Lib Dems in London don’t have dual-mandates; although Baronness Ludford did unsuccessfully stand for Clerkenwell ward in Islington in 2018.

It wasn't always this way, though. Leader of the GLA's Liberal Democrats, Caroline Pidgeon, was also a councillor in Southwark for Newington ward from 2008-10 at the same time, and lost to Kate Hoey at the 2010 General Election. Tom Brake was both MP and councillor from 1997-98, Baron Tope was a councillor in Sutton for many years and member of the House of Lords, and Dee Doocey was once simultaneously a member of the GLA and the House of Lords.

Dual-issues

There have been many other past examples of dual-mandates in London, but what they all have in common is a question mark over their ability to perform both roles adequately.

Detractors argue that it is residents who lose out at ward-level, as councillors who have democratic responsibilities elsewhere are unable to dedicate a satisfactory amount of time to their duties. This was the case for Labour’s Neil Coyle and Helen Hayes in Southwark, both of whom were elected as MPs in 2015 and later resigned from the council in 2016.

However it is possible that these dual-mandate councillors are spending their time developing a broader knowledge of the issues we face as a city, and then using different perspectives to bring positive change down to a ward level. If your ward councillor is also a leading policy maker for housing issues at the GLA, that is beneficial for you as an individual.

There is a concern, however, that those with dual-mandates are some of the highest paid councillors in the capital. Although there are much richer councillors out there than those with dual-mandates, the idea of spending public money on high salaries in an age of austerity really irks people, which is why many on this list waive collecting their councillor allowances.

For some, the very notion that councillors are paid at all is unpalatable. But this is usually an argument attributed to those who live in a timeline where London is one large pseudo-version of the Trumpton universe. The allowances paid to councillors enable the less financially well-off to serve their communities in the first place. And anyway, an independent panel on the remuneration of councillors in London says they should be paid more, so yeah.

It is a widely held belief that there is a lack of investment in local government. When money is scarce, using the expertise and power of dual-mandate councillors to make timely investments is surely a positive. Enabling their unique perspectives and promoting the sharing of information will provide better articulated solutions to the issues we face as a city, and when London tackles such issues pragmatically, the whole country benefits – at least until that 2019 general election is called, anyway.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.