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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.