London Mayoral election: a view from Prof. Ian Gordon
Reading the manifestos of the full range of candidates, and the more developed ones of the handful of credible contenders is a less depressing experience than I had imagined. There are candidates with clearly different personalities, values, obsessions, connections, and bright ideas (though some pale with repetition), all conveying a real enthusiasm for the city and doing a good job for ‘Londoners’). The tone and detail clearly vary – for some, heaven knows why we should believe they could actually do the job, while Sadiq Khan naturally trades heavily on the fact of his having actually done it for 5 years. None, however – including the current Mayor – seem to seriously address the question of why in some key respects the city has failed to develop in the way that all three elected Mayors had thought it should. What can be learned from that common failure of three politicians – notably different in all ways except their engagements with national politics?
That relation with national politics is clearly crucial, though not really addressed by any of Sadiq Khan’s would-be successors. As I understand it, Tony Blair’s choice of a mayoral system to (eventually) fill the gap left by Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of the previous London-wide council reflected three perceived needs:
- For an expressive representation of the city of the city’s strengths and diversity, both internationally, in UK-wide interests, and domestically, speaking across and on behalf of its communities in challenging times;
- For an essentially strategic authority (without direct executive functions, though acquiring oversight of the Met and TfL) to provide a framework for change and development, across the region, over the long run, and in relation to underlying processes – where its council predecessor had failed; and
- In doing so, to avoid unnecessarily irritating national government or publically challenging its authority in key areas of national policy – from a highly visible position across the river.
On the first of these, my sense is that all three Mayors so far have done comparably well, in different styles – and during the particularly great challenge of the pandemic years, facilitating more practical co-operation too. On the second, my judgement would be much harsher, as I shall explain. Predictably though, the manifestos all ignore the strategic character of this failure, offering at most piecemeal ‘remedies’ for one or two aspects. The challenges of the third may not be ones that can be talked about too directly in manifestos, though several candidates have proposals that could be problematic in practice, and the Mayor presents a robust front in relation to the current government.
There is a new dimension here in that the present government has found it politically convenient to adopt an irritating front itself, siding with the critics of London-based elites. Materially this entails a negative form of ‘levelling up’ – both fiscally and in placing the blame for a wider failure to meet housing targets (present or future). And just being awkward, in a dilatory kind of way – drawing out the process of approval of the Mayor’s London Plan so much that (but for the Covid interruption) Sadiq Kahn would have been the first incumbent to face re-election without having an approved London Plan to his credit.
The Plan itself is a substantial and very professional document, with a lot more detail in its proposals than might be expected of a ‘strategy’. But its basic ‘plot’ is that devised by Ken Livingstone and re-papered by Boris Johnson. This starts from espousal of an inevitable (and nationally important) growth momentum, coming from London’s global city role. And responds to it with a ‘sustainable compact city’ model, to accommodate the physical development implications within the GLA boundary (‘consuming its own smoke’), and thus avoid potentially unpopular impacts on housing needs elsewhere in its extended functional region. Within this frame, each Plan addresses (with shifting emphases) the parameters of what the present Mayor calls ’good growth’, including equity, environmental and social concerns of various kinds.
Lively debate about these, and the trade-offs between them, continues both in and between Mayoral elections. But the question of whether the basic model/plot is credible – in terms (let’s say) of whether the anticipated housing needs are likely to get met within the compact city -lacks any such appeal to press or public. With arguments yawing between the fantastical and the statistically tedious it’s been a matter of limited and ‘specialised’ interest. And kept so, it seems, because its credibility is crucial to keeping both central government and other Wider South Eastern (WSE) authorities off the Mayor’s back.
But a simple truth with which every candidate (incumbent or aspirant) ought to engage is that the Plans’ targets for housing delivery have never been approached. Indeed they never seemed likely to be. In the first Plan it might have been a reasonable gamble to see if the model worked. But to simply persist as the evidence against piled up – rather than pursuing a collaborative approach to unlocking land supply across the WSE – has reflected an inexcusable (political) evasion among London leaders, as well as their national counterparts.
Instead, what’s been evident for pushing three years now is that both Mayor and ministers were girding up for a blame game about a big shortfall in housing deliveries. Many of the manifestos from Mayoral candidates quite reasonably have more targeted concerns with the gap in provision of affordable housing. But none make the strategic link to broader market constraints on land supply. nd where claims about redressing this are explained, they involve one of two ‘get-outs’ to by-pass mainstream market processes, each with fundamental problems. The more common of these is simply for the Mayor to commandeer spare TfL land, though without any regard as to how this would impact on the agency’s already very problematic financial situation, and its dependence on central government support. The other is to get powers to take over land for which developers have unused planning permission, without any regard to the likelihood of the present government or a prospective successor actually taking this step. But, if neither work, it could be presented as central government’s fault rather than the Mayor’s!
Central government has clearly been unhelpful to getting an agreed Plan out and running. But it is wrong for the present Mayor, in his manifesto, to represent the key changes he’s had to accept as acts of political obstruction. Rather they can be seen to reflect clear findings and recommendations of the independent Inspectors following a searching Examination in Public – echoing the views of their predecessors, back in 2015, whose verdict on the last version of Boris Johnson’s Plan, was even more clear-cut about the inadequacy of the current (compact city) model as a basis for securing delivery of the required additional housing. Their specific guidance, on the need for Green Belt review and active engagement with partners across the Wider South East, if the shortfall were to be met, was followed up in a set of Outer London Commission reports prepared to inform the next Mayor’s work. These were completely ignored, and what was offered as an alternative ‘new philosophy ‘ in their place in Sadiq Khan’s draft Plan was an aspiration to secure much denser development of small sites (predominantly) in Outer London – on a scale for which the EiP found no evidential support, and from which the Mayor was forced to retreat.
Despite their other attractive features, what we really don’t get in personality-focused Mayoral election contests is any serious debate about the strategic issues for which the office was primarily designed – issues that matter for the welfare of all Londoners (though in unequal ways) but otherwise get resolved piecemeal without serious public or critical attention. If elections are inappropriate occasions for such discussion – and because what matters is delivery not promises – others now need to be brought into play.