If Juncker wants a stronger, more united Europe, he should listen to its cities

EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivering his state of the union address. Image: Getty.

With the next European parliamentary elections just around the corner, European Commission president Juncker used his annual state of the union address to call for a more united and stronger Europe.

Of course, he is right to do so, and he laid out a vision of how he hopes to get there. But a plan that focuses on external threats and the global picture must also recognise that these challenges are connected to people, and the places, the cities where they live.

One might say that Mr Juncker’s mandate at the European Commission has been ‘hijacked’ by any number of turbulent events: terrorist attacks, an unprecedented flow of refugees into the EU, potential assaults on the rule of law and trends towards nationalism, and, of course, Brexit. But many of these European challenges are concentrated in our cities. And cities have repeatedly shown leadership, and a desire to act, without an adequate recognition of their role and contribution.

Take climate change. The Covenant of Mayors is proof positive that cities can think ‘big on big things’, and are increasingly prepared to work together on global challenges. More than 6,000 local climate and energy action plans have been adopted across Europe, with an agreed average CO2 reduction of around 27 per cent expected by 2020. In other areas – such as providing cleaner air, establishing cleaner water and tackling waste – cities are at the forefront of global change.

On migration, it is cities that have been left to deal with the reception and integration of refugees since the peak ‘crisis’ year in 2015. We are no longer dealing with those kinds of numbers of new arrivals – so rather than focus on securing Europe’s external borders, we should focus on integrating people who are already here, which means providing greater investment at the local level.


Cities are also striving for a more social Europe. Last year EUROCITIES members made a commitment to provide ‘social rights to all’ ahead of the EU’s social summit in Gothenburg, where cities were left out of discussions. Our work this year to localise global and European agendas, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, aims to enable every citizen to participate in society.

We need to strengthen the urban dimension of EU decision making by involving cities as strategic partners on issues from migration and climate change to a more social Europe. I understand Juncker’s sentiment of being more ambitious on these big issues – but ambition must go hand in hand with ensuring impact at the local level. This can be done with the involvement of cities. 

Temporary solidarity is not good enough

The Urban Agenda for the EU has demonstrated that different levels of government can work together on common issues. The various commitments made by cities through the urban agenda partnerships, and our work in other areas such as those mentioned above, are testament to cities’ ability to uphold the founding values of European cooperation and solidarity.

Europe won’t be able to stay united and show solidarity if it doesn’t demonstrate results that matter to people. This is why the next EU budget must maintain a strong cohesion policy – the EU’s main source of regional investments – and reflect not only the top goals, but also see cities as strategic partners. This means listening more to citizens. Cities have the experience of working with citizens and ensuring that decisions taken at EU level work on the ground. EUROCITIES’ Cities4Europe campaign is engaging with citizens to find new ways of doing politics – and we look forward to presenting these outcomes to president Juncker and the member states at our second mayors summit on 21 March 2019 in Brussels.

People are calling on the EU to change. Where better to start than at the local level, in our cities, where people are most likely to see results? As Mr Juncker said last year, that is how we will get the wind back in Europe’s sails.

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES, an umbrella group representing European cities. The network includes 140 of Europe’s largest cities and more than 40 partner cities that between them govern some 130 million citizens across 39 countries.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.