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A year ago this week Sadiq Khan became the new Mayor of London, armed with the largest personal mandate of any politician in the UK, and a vision for where he wanted to leave the city in four years time. The twelve months since has been a time of great political upheaval and change following the EU referendum last June. How well has Khan dealt with these challenges, and how far has he got in achieving some of the most important pledges in his manifesto?
By far the biggest issue Khan has had to deal with is the vote for Brexit last June. Coming less than two months into his tenure, the decision to leave the EU fundamentally changed the political and economic landscape in London and the UK. With a majority of the capital’s electorate in favour of remaining, Khan was visible in campaigning against Brexit, and after the referendum took proactive steps to mitigate the impact on the city’s voters and businesses. In particular, Khan has used his ‘soft power’ as the voice of London to call for a soft Brexit. Beyond this, he has been an impressive ambassador for London, building links and alliances with cities and city leaders around the world (such as Bill de Blasio of New York and Anne Hildago of Paris) with his “London is open” tagline. Khan has navigated these choppy waters admirably, charting a course that ensured his role was both practical in its support for businesses and constituents’ needs, and principled in consistently supporting non-British Londoners.
Policy-wise, Khan started with some politically astute ‘quick wins’– firstly introducing the Hopper Fare, and secondly reconvening the London Finance Commission. Bringing in the Hopper fare (which allows Londoners to make a free second bus journey within an hour of paying £1.50 for their first fare) early on in his tenure signalled his intentions to make significant changes to transport costs, and was a visible change to Londoner’s lives that they associated with the new mayor. It underlined Khan’s intention to prioritise bus users’ concerns, and showed that he could instigate changes that mattered for people quickly, despite resistance from TfL. But since these early wins, he seems to have struggled to drive through other substantive changes with the same vigour. For example, after re-convening the London Finance Commission and calling for fiscal devolution and powers for the capital, momentum seems to have drifted on this agenda.
Khan’s longer term priority for London is to tackle the capital’s housing crisis, which as polling suggests is also the biggest concern for his constituents. He has pledged to build 50,000 homes in the capital each year by the end of his term, and that half of these homes will be genuinely affordable. It is too early to judge the success of these promises, but Khan will feel bullish on the second pledge after reaching agreements with some of the largest housebuilders in the city. However, despite these small steps, the Mayor’s refusal to consider the green belt has constrained his chances of addressing one of the biggest obstacles to building new homes and dealing with spiralling house prices – the lack of land available to develop in London. Nearly a quarter of land within the city limits is green belt, and refusing to consider changing any of its protected status (regardless of its current condition or existing use) will continue to artificially inflate land prices in the city. By sanctifying this planning designation, Khan continues to restrict new development, which raises house prices and makes driving deals with developers for affordable housing more difficult. Achieving a plan for a functioning housing market in London is impossible without reconsidering the green belt.
Khan’s first year has been a turbulent time, but he has consolidated his popularity amongst the electorate (especially among non-Labour voters) and used his ‘London is open’ slogan effectively to build networks with other cities internationally. However, we are yet to see whether his efforts to address the biggest challenges facing the capital will yield the results expected of him. For his term to be considered a success, Khan must start taking the tough decisions required to make progress in delivering the new homes that London needs.
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