Sadiq Khan can help but London will never be cheap

The new mayor can tweak housing policies but London is in a different league to Berlin

 London mayor Sadiq Khan: as long as London is world class, more people will want to live there than can be cheaply accommodated. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

London mayor Sadiq Khan: as long as London is world class, more people will want to live there than can be cheaply accommodated. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

 

Among a commentator’s necessary pretences is that events have meaning. We see shape in chaos and universal lessons in particular happenings. Parties of the left flunk a few elections in Europe – except where they do not – and this signifies a “crisis of social democracy”.

Do not confuse this with the “crisis of capitalism” that we stitch out of some protests against free trade, a celebrity retailer’s underfunded pension liabilities and other meagre threads offered up by the news.

This is all very human. Our species tries to make sense of the world even when there is no sense to be made.

Sadiq Khan’s election as London mayor probably means nothing about race, Islam, Britishness or anything beyond his political superiority over the runner-up, Zac Goldsmith, and his Labour Party’s urban advantage. Nor should we hook his victory to Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty in New York to form a story of worldwide municipal reaction against inequality and footloose hyper-wealth.

This was an electorate on partisan autopilot. Khan beat Goldsmith by the same margin – more than 310,000 votes – that Labour secured over the Conservatives in London during last year’s general election. Each man won fewer votes than his party last May, and by the same amount.

The dread is that Khan’s voters on the soft left really believe that this is a moment hopes could grow of a decisive turn against London’s 21st-century excesses. Familiar complaints about house prices and wealth disparities will finally be straightened out by a guy who gets it.

The least Khan owes them is candour. It is possible to make London a bit more affordable. It is not possible to make London affordable. As long as the city is world class, more people will want to live here than can be cheaply accommodated. Some are plutocrats, more are high-earning professionals, and many more than that are low-paid workers.

Least parochial

Tokyo

This is a plea for realism, not passivity. More homes should be built. The sanctity of the greenbelt should go the way of old curbs on skyscrapers. The low density that distinguishes London from other great cities cannot survive a population rising to eight digits.

Khan can extract cheaper housing from some developers, even if his threat to withhold planning permission if they resist risks compounding under-supply.

These and other reforms can ease the problem of cost. But they cannot turn London into Berlin or any of those cities envied for their low-cost user-friendliness by a certain kind of cycling hipster, as if they play in the same league of population and economic weight as London.

If London wants a great moderation, its only recourse is to step down from the top tier of cities. It did so between the end of the second World War and the turn of the 1980s, achieving reasonable equality and cost of living. You can do that when your population is sinking. You can do that when ideas and the capital behind them prefer alternative shores.

Spectacular success with costs and stresses, or a quiet life for a bargain. That, crudely, is the trade-off. There is no disgrace in either choice, but too many Londoners now expect a return to the accessible city of the 1970s with no compromise of its 21st-century pomp and verve.

Discount city

London’s employment opportunities for people at all skill levels, the universe of cultural life it crams into individual postcodes, the sheer giddy agglomeration of stuff: all of it hinges on the same inward cascade of people and money that creates gaping divisions of wealth and locks newspaper columnists in their 30s out of the propertied classes.

Londoners grumble now and they will grumble after four or eight years of Sadiq Khan. But judge a city by revealed preferences, not just prevailing commentary. Old, affordable London did everything apart from persuade people to live here.

New, extortionate London is so off-putting to its residents that there will be 10 million of them before the present mayor becomes a pensioner .

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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