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.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.