Rent controls are popular – but backing them is still a big gamble for Sadiq Khan

London mayor Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

Sadiq Khan has kicked off his bid to be re-elected as mayor of London, announcing that he will make rent control a central pillar of his campaign.

On the face of it, the politics are largely positive for Khan: rent control is hugely popular among all voters, and particularly renters, who make up a great and growing slice of the capital’s voters.

But it also represents a big gamble on the mayor’s part. First of all, the London mayor does not at present have the power to control rents. Khan will be running not on a promise to deliver rent control but on a promise to ask to deliver rent control.

It emphasises one of the weakest areas of Khan’s mayoralty: his failure to expand the powers of the mayoralty. In 2016, he pledged to seek further powers from central government over transport, housing, youth justice, probation, the courts, and tax raising. He has received none of them. That’s not really his fault, and it may be that had David Cameron not lost the Brexit referendum in June 2016, then a devolution-minded George Osborne might well have handed over those additional powers and the Khan record would be altogether more successful.

In the real world, however, David Cameron did lose the Brexit referendum and there is no appetite from the present Conservative Party to give Khan further powers – even in areas where there is widespread political and expert consensus that it would be a good thing for the Mayor of London to have and exercise those powers.

In addition, it means making a policy that, while popular, has been consistently found not to work. Rent control incentivises landlords to remove their properties from the private rental market and instead to use them for the tourist market on AirBNB or other listings services, and creates steeper barriers to entry for new tenants.


Rent control does create some winners among renters, but crucially only among existing renters and at the expense of those starting new tenancies. Here, the dire state of tenants’ rights in the United Kingdom and the unintended consequences of rent control could create a particularly toxic cocktail: most renters don’t stay in the same rental contract for long, and it is very easy for landlords to move tenants on if they opt to move out of the private rented sector and into the holiday lettings market.

The policy is popular now, but with more than a full year to go before the next mayoral election, there is no guarantee it will remain so. It’s a boost to Khan that his Conservative opponent, Shaun Bailey, is a weak and a gaffe-prone campaigner; but it is still not certain than a year of public debate about the rights and wrongs of rent control end in a good place for Khan.

More worrying for the Labour campaign is that Khan is selling the pass as far as the question of what the mayoral election will be about. Sian Berry, who finished third last time, will surely hope that a combination of a weak Tory candidate in Bailey, the general feeling that Khan has it in the bag, and growing discontent in the capital with the sub-par efforts to tackle climate change or air pollution by national government, make it an ideal election for the Greens to come second by emphasising their opposition to Brexit and Heathrow; while the Liberal Democrats’ Siobhan Benita will want to do the same.

And in campaigning for a power he doesn’t have, Khan has legitimised his rivals in making issues that aren’t devolved to the capital the centrepiece of their election campaigns as well.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.