Londoners have learned the hard way that Boris Johnson’s boosterism will fail

Never not relevant. Image: Getty.

In many ways, Boris Johnson’s new economic strategy – “boosterism” – is the embodiment of our new Prime Minister. Like the man himself, at first glance, it’s compelling and cartoonish. It’s only when you delve deeper, that it becomes clear that it’s reckless, impulsive, and bursting at the seams with contradictions.

According to sources within Number 10, Johnson wants to put “rocket boosters” under the economy in the form of heavy infrastructure investment. He has already outlined a few initial ways he would like to do this: spending billions on new high–speed rail lines, and rolling out super–fast broadband across the country.

Yet, here in London, we are still recovering from the impact of Boris Johnson’s boosterism over the course of his eight years as Mayor.

Londoners learned the hard way how detached Johnson is from reality – watching him pour funds into hare–brained schemes like “Boris Airport” and the “Garden Bridge” that cost millions without a single brick being laid.

His array of costly vanity projects left taxpayers footing a bill of nearly £1bn, and this figure is continuing to rise three years on. What do we have to show for it? A handful of shiny monuments on the skyline that do nothing to tackle the underlying problems faced by those living in our city – growing inequality, child poverty, and a chronic lack of social housing.

This money could have been invested in schools, hospitals, housing, libraries and youth centres – reviving the lifeblood of our communities, rather than tearing them apart.


Of course, Johnson is right about one thing: that the UK is desperately in need of greater infrastructure funding after years of crippling Tory austerity. However, his fanatical approach to Brexit completely undermines this goal.

With one hand he’s offering “billions” to help stabilise our poorest regions. Yet, with the other he’s threatening to pull the rug out from beneath them with a no deal Brexit that would plunge our country into the grips of recession. We all know who would be hit hardest. It’s not our new Prime Minister or his pals.

Even if Johnson strikes a deal in Brussels, the UK will soon be cut off from critical EU funding streams that are designed to reduce inequalities. Parts of the country that have been “left behind” will face a multi–billion–pound gap in funding for housing, transport and infrastructure projects, and countless other EU schemes designed to support the most vulnerable will evaporate. This will all take place at crunch time, as UK Government ministers scrabble to set up and oversee a number of new national systems and procedures to replace the EU mechanisms that their predecessors helped to build.

Should Johnson succeed in dragging us out of the EU without a deal, the economic shock will be severe. In the short–term, we can realistically expect to experience long traffic jams at the border, disruption at airports, food and medicine shortages, a mass cull of farm animals, thousands of job losses, and research funding flooding out of the country.

Anyone who thinks that speedy broadband connections and some new trains will fix this problem is either naive or incompetent – I fear our new Prime Minister may be both.

Scott Ainslie is a Green MEP for London.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.