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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.