The controversy this week around Sadiq Khan’s apparent back-tracking on his pledge to freeze transport fares suggests that after an assured first month in office, the honeymoon period may be over for the new mayor.
However, a potentially tougher political challenge still awaits Khan.
That is setting out how he intends to deal with London’s housing crisis, which was by far the biggest topic in the recent election campaign — and which will require him to take more unpopular and controversial decisions in the very near future.
The new mayor has promised to make housing his top priority, pledging to build 50,000 new homes each year, and to ensure that all new housing developments consist of 50% affordable homes.
At the same time, he has also promised to protect the capital’s greenbelt land, and this week announced new plans [subscription needed] to prevent commercial centres being converted into residential properties.
But the reality is that it won’t be possible to address all these competing pressures at once, and Khan has difficult political choices to make if he is to make any progress in dealing with these issues.
Take, for example, his pledge on affordable housing. Given the spiralling costs of housing in the capital, this is a laudable aim.
The affordable homes dilemma
But implementing this policy is more likely to constrain house-building rather than increase it, by discouraging developers from launching new housing projects, and by making many potential housing sites financially unviable.
As such, ultimately Khan may have to decide what is most important — building more homes for all Londoners, or creating more affordable housing for those who are most in need — as achieving both will be extremely difficult.
The other big question mark is how Khan will find the land needed to build the new homes he has promised, given the scarcity of available sites in London and his reluctance to consider the greenbelt for development.
The mayor has argued that using the capital’s brownfield sites, and land currently owned by TfL, will enable him to free up land for new homes.
However, there simply isn’t enough brownfield land available to build the homes that London needs, while the 75 TfL sites earmarked for housing so far will only provide for around 10,000 new homes. And while Khan’s plans to protect commercial centres will help to ensure London remains a thriving business centre, they will also place another significant constraint on the amount of land available for new homes.
The mayor will therefore have to choose between pursuing his housing targets, or maintaining his position on the greenbelt. Given the vocal opposition to building on the greenbelt from campaign groups and voters in London’s outer boroughs, it’s understandable that Khan has so far been reluctant to consider this idea.
Building on a tiny fraction of greenbelt land could go a long way in addressing London’s housing shortages.
Research by the Centre for Cities shows that more than 430,000 suburban homes could be built close to train stations on just 2% of London’s greenbelt. Ruling this out may have been politically expedient for Khan during the election campaign, but as mayor he may longer have that luxury, as the greenbelt offers him the only option for squaring all his different housing priorities.
No one doubts the scale of the challenge ahead for the mayor in tackling the housing crisis, but unlike leaders in other UK cities, Khan has both the mandate and powers he needs to make a real difference in addressing these problems.
That will mean showing real leadership in deciding conclusively what his housing priorities are, and how he will realistically achieve them — even if that involves making potentially contentious and unpopular choices.
Khan may only be one month into a four year term, but there is no time to waste, especially since he has admitted that much of the next two years will be spent simply implementing Boris Johnson’s housing plans.
That leaves him with a short window in which to make his mark in addressing the housing crisis — and there’s no way he can so without making tough political decisions.
Alexandra Jones is Chief Executive of the think tank Centre for Cities