Zac Goldsmith vs Sadiq Khan vs the crisis: why London's 2016 mayoral contest will be the housing election

Facing off: Conservative Zac Goldsmith and Labour's Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

Whenever we speak to people up and down Britain about London, they talk about it like another country, with its “crazy” house prices and rents cited as proof positive. Inside the capital the housing crisis is felt so acutely that our research for London Councils, published last week, finds a third of adults saying that costs are pushing them to consider leaving.

The issue has been bubbling up in London for some time now. It has been more top-of-mind in London than it has elsewhere in Britain for at least as long as the Conservatives have been in Number 10 (both with and without the Lib Dems), and is trending upwards as a national issue.

In 2013, we found 39 per cent of Londoners giving a range of housing issues, mainly affordability, as “the most/other important issues facing London”. Last month it was 54 per cent, much higher than London’s perennial issues of transport (41 per cent) and crime (16 per cent). While the salience of housing has increased fifteen points in two years, economic issues have gone the opposite way by a similar margin.

Mindful of voters’ concerns about housing, both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have put it centre-stage of their early pitches, Goldsmith calling next May’s election a “referendum on housing”. But in doing so, they might want to heed the cautionary findings from our research.


In particular, there is considerable pessimism in the capital; only one in 10 anticipate affordability will get better in the next two years or so, while two-thirds of private renters think they will never be able to buy. The candidates should be careful not to further stoke aspirations without certainty that they can intervene to solve a crisis prey to strong market forces.

We also know that in the electorate’s mind the issue of housing is not simply about supply, although clearly this is important and recognised as such by voters. For example, our research for both Berkeley Group and Create Streets shows that Londoners are not willing to entirely sacrifice quality for quantity.

Tenure is an important issue too. While the aspiration for most people is firmly ownership, there is also appetite for mixed tenure provision, reflecting diverse needs and situations.

Housing offers huge electoral potential. It has got to the point where everyone thinks it important, whatever age, whichever class and tenure, inner or outer London. Thus, it cuts through all demographics and areas and, in contrast to the national picture, housing has as much traction among owner-occupiers as renters. This is significant, because homeowners and mortgage holders are significantly more likely to vote, but in London their voting power is relatively weaker given the sheer number of renters (who make up the majority in some London constituencies).

Candidates will need to have their tactical wits about them. For example, they will be mindful of sensitivities around house price inflation: nationally, owner-occupiers think house price rises are good for them personally, albeit bad for the country. They’ll also need to be wary of any state intervention that could be seen as either depressing the value of many people’s prized assets, or feeding a wider impression that candidate’s instincts are anti-business.

In 2012 Ken Livingstone’s Living Rent proposal was apparently popular (he lost). And this year Labour had a lead on housing policy at the general election and didn’t prevail.

Talking to an issue is one thing, but for it to bite electorally, voters must perceive a difference between candidates and a capability to tackle the issue. Perceived competence on housing, as on other policy areas, will be central to next year’s election, and there is some convincing to be done to get past voters’ natural cynicism about promises.

The election is some way off, and Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan are in start-up mode. There is a lot for them to work through, but housing looks sure to be a big part of their plans, and of the election itself.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

This article was originally posted on our sister site, The Staggers.

 
 
 
 

What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.