Of the files waiting for Sadiq Khan when he took over as London mayor just over a year ago, the problem of housing, or the lack thereof, would have been jostling for position at the top of the pile with issues such as Crossrail, Brexit and the future of the capital on the global stage.
Nobody said running London would be easy – and if further evidence were needed, you only have to look at what Khan has had to contend with over the past 10 days: first, angry Grenfell Tower victims confronting him and demanding answers, and then news of the terror attack in Finsbury Park.
In both cases, he has reacted with more diplomacy and empathy than some, but while he has handled himself with aplomb when it comes to communicating with the general public, what about his track record when it comes to the property industry and delivering on the housing brief?
The verdict from leading residential figures is decidedly mixed, as the report card below attests. The consenus is that Khan started well enough and that there have been some positive announcements, not least of the record £3.15bn of funding he secured in December from the Affordable Homes Programme pot to build 90,000 new homes, which he stated was just a first step on the “long road towards fixing London’s housing crisis”.
London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) chief executive Colin Stanbridge believes that both Khan and James Murray, his deputy in charge of housing, are committed to getting the job done.
“Sadiq has made housing a priority,” he says. “He gets that we have to see everything through the prism of housing. James has done a great job on the mayor’s behalf. The development world has said: ‘Here’s a guy we can do business with.’”
Speaking to Property Week, Murray says the first task has been to get everyone who can make a difference round the same table.
“It’s been a real priority to engage with the industry as widely as possible,” he says. “I hope there has been evidence of that in the way I’ve carried out this role over the past year. What’s struck me is there is a huge amount of consensus around what we need to do.”
That may be so, but many feel that it is only Murray who is truly engaging with the industry – without a clear mandate from his boss. One agent also points out that it took six months for the first Homes for Londoners Committee to meet after Khan’s election.
“There’s never been so much goodwill between the Greater London Authority [GLA] and central government and such alignment over housing throughout the whole supply chain,” he says. “You’d have thought that a smart politician like Sadiq would recognise the opportunity he’s got here, but he hasn’t. I’d say he hasn’t been proactive enough.”
Availability of land
A particular bone of contention is release of land. Although Murray insists the mayor is looking to use a variety of housing delivery models and that “the commercial focus will be around the availability of land and making sure we have that capacity”, the agent notes that Khan has “wasted a year” and only just started to promote the issue.
British Property Federation chief executive Melanie Leech agrees this needs to be the top priority – but concedes it is one of the hardest tasks. “The key to being able to generate more stock and tackle the need for more affordable housing is to release land,” she elaborates.
“The London Land Commission has identified land that could allow 130,000 homes to be built, but it’s gone very quiet since that report. The next year will be the proof of the pudding.”
There is another barrier to delivering more housing, adds Adam Challis, head of residential research at JLL. “Completion rates suggest things are going in the right direction, but it’s the starts issue that is far more relevant and that’s turned pretty sharply in the other direction,” he says. “This year will see central London starts remain well below what they need to be in terms of the targets set. The market has moved against the mayor.”
Stanbridge says this exposes a key flaw in the role of the mayor of London. “Our problem is not with him but with the system,” he says. “The mayoralty is a powerful role but what it lacks is the means to turn advocacy into reality; it lacks revenue-raising powers. The mayor has to go cap in hand to central government. Sadiq has said all the right things, but now he needs the tools to do the job.”
That is particularly true when it comes to funding the infrastructure that will underpin development, says Colliers International’s director of planning Jonathan Manns. “The mayor will need to work to facilitate, finance and promote new development to ensure it moves forward,” he says.
“His responses are bound to infrastructure, as this is key to unlocking the places the mayor wishes to see developed. This creates significant potential for Crossrail 2 and 3 to stimulate development.”
Indeed, by December next year the Elizabeth line – as Crossrail 1 is now known – will be up and running. And before the first trains set off, discussions about the next big transport project, Crossrail 2, will be well under way. Hawkins\Brown partner Harbinder Singh Birdi, who is responsible for the architect’s infrastructure sector work, says far from being just another line on the map, if managed right the project could lay the path for a new wave of development.
“The challenge will be to get the logistics in place around the transport hubs,” he says. “Sadiq has realised there is an opportunity and the GLA and Transport for London have to have a joined-up approach. Sadiq has come at a good time.”
Worst of times
In some senses that may be true, but in others he has found himself at the helm at very much the worst of times.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy will shine the spotlight more intensely on the role of high-rise development in addressing the capital’s housing needs and for the short term at least, fire safety and building material standards could well be higher on Khan’s agenda than housing delivery.
Looking back, the bigger wins for property have arguably been in relation to business rates, says Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company. “He has cemented the trust of the capital’s property sector, particularly his commitment to reducing rate rises for businesses,” he says. “The government’s recent pledges to reform the business rates system are thanks in part to the mayor’s support of the campaign.”
However, if the one good thing that comes out of last week’s tragedy is that housing is elevated up the political agenda, the hope is that delivery will not be far behind the critical issues of safety and standards – and that Khan will rise to the challenge, earning himself a better report next year.