Big question: Is the London housing crisis Boris Johnson's fault?

A panel of experts share their views

March 04, 2016
UNITED KINGDOM, London: Frustrated Londoners gather at City Hall to demand Boris Johnson urgently tackle the lack of affordable housing in the capital on January 31, 2015.An estimated 2,000 people participated in the demonstrations asking the mayor to add
UNITED KINGDOM, London: Frustrated Londoners gather at City Hall to demand Boris Johnson urgently tackle the lack of affordable housing in the capital on January 31, 2015.An estimated 2,000 people participated in the demonstrations asking the mayor to add
Read more: Is the government right about "sink estates"?

London’s housing crisis isn’t going away. Recent figures show that in the second half of 2015, registrations to build new homes in the capital fell by nine per cent—down to 26,000. This is despite the city’s population growing by four times that a year, and a recent poll showing that Londoners think housing is the number one issue facing the capital.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been in his post for eight years now. Is he responsible for the shortage? Should he have used his planning powers more effectively? Or is it unreasonable to attribute such a big phenomenon to just one man?

Our expert panellists, including Richard Blakeway, a Deputy Mayor of London and Nicky Gavron, Labour’s Planning Spokesperson on the London Assembly, offer their views.

The best strategy yet

Richard Blakeway, Deputy Mayor of London for Housing

To suggest that a single individual is to blame for London’s housing shortage is clearly absurd. There has been a thirty-year failure to build enough homes to meet an unprecedented population growth.

The Mayor has produced the most comprehensive London housing strategy yet to address this huge challenge. He has set the most ambitious housing target in City Hall's history, making planning authorities and developers raise their game. This has seen records smashed for construction orders, housing starts and planning consents. The Mayor is on track to deliver 100,000 affordable homes over his two terms and last year more affordable homes were built than in any year since 1981. He has released all of City Hall's surplus land, created 20 new housing zones to accelerate development and infrastructure and pioneered measures to support renters and first time buyers. This progress will benefit Londoners for years to come.

Rigging the system

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets 

London’s housing crisis is born from a collective failure of an entire generation of policy makers and politicians of all parties, and has been nurtured by our unhealthy obsession with home ownership. But despite having the powers that could have offered a cure to the crisis, Johnson has actively made it worse. He has further rigged the system, allowing developers to build endless luxury flats that are beyond the reach of any but the already well-off, deliberately degrading definitions of "affordable" housing to include utterly unaffordable housing that renders the term meaningless, and spearheading the Tories's dismantling of social housing. Tackling the housing crisis in a city like London is clearly a complex issue, requiring a shared vision and strong leadership. The tragedy of Johnson's time in City Hall is that he has failed to offer either.

Politics has come first

Andrew Carter, Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities think tank

Boris Johnson isn’t to blame for the housing crisis, and in fact has introduced some innovative policies which delivered modest gains in housing such as the Housing Zones initiative, which encourages housebuilding in specific "opportunity areas" through light touch planning regulation and tax incentives. However, by confining himself to interventions which are restricted to small parts of London and slow to deliver by their nature, he has failed to bring about the step change in house-building that the capital needs.

Ultimately, Johnson has shied away from taking the difficult decisions necessary to really tackle the capital’s housing crisis, such as encouraging the building of homes on selected sites within the greenbelt. Our analysis shows that more than 430,000 homes could be built at suburban densities, close to train stations on just 2 per cent of London’s greenbelt, but Johnson has avoided this option for fear of jeopardising his political support in the capital’s suburbs. Given the extent of London’s housing crisis, his successor may not have the same luxury.

An utter lack of leadership

Nicky Gavron, former Deputy Mayor of London and Labour Spokesperson for Planning on the London Assembly

The Mayor of London enjoys wide planning powers. Unfortunately, this Mayor has failed to use these to solve London’s housing crisis. This is the Mayor whose London Plan set an annual housing target of 42,000 homes per year despite his own evidence showing a need of at least 49,000—and he’s only building half that. This is the Mayor who has called in planning applications to provide less affordable housing than boroughs were negotiating.

This is the Mayor who has shown an utter lack of leadership on the viability issue, allowing developers to game the system by overpaying for land and then claiming there is no money left for affordable housing. This is the Mayor who has intervened in the planning system to stop boroughs imposing rent caps for people on low incomes. All this has contributed to an endless escalation of land values, which has driven up house prices and rents. We need creative and ambitious solutions if we are to effectively tackle the capital’s housing crisis. We need a Mayor who uses the planning system and public and to provide enough high-quality affordable homes. Johnson has not been that Mayor.

A spectator—nothing more

Nick Gallent, Head of University College London's Bartlett School of Planning

Boris Johnson is spectator to a perfect storm. The road to the current housing crisis has been long and complex: the failure of successive governments to provide a mix of housing options across the market and social sectors; an over reliance on market production and allocation; bank deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s and the free-flow of credit into the housing sector; the increasing reliance on housing to underpin consumer confidence and drive the post-industrial economy since WWII; the looming crisis in state and private pensions; the failure to distinguish between the housing we need and the property we want to invest in, compounded by a failure to regulate and now by the in-flow of footloose global capital into cities like London. The local buttons that the mayor might have pressed would have offered little respite from the storm. He simply isn’t powerful enough to be culpable for this mess, though he and others are part of a political machinery that could have made many different choices over the years.

Inherited a shortage; left us with a crisis

Tom Copley, City Hall Labour's Housing Spokesperson

Whilst the seeds of London's housing problem pre-date the current Mayor, Johnson inherited a housing shortage which through his inaction has quickly become a full blown crisis. Thirty years of failure by successive governments to ensure that London and the rest of the country built the number of homes needed have led to the situation we now find ourselves in. But there is no doubt that the situation has worsened considerably under Johnson.

His claims to have built a record number of affordable homes are spurious. It's very easy to claim you've broken a record when you've changed the definition of what counts as affordable. Rough sleeping has more than doubled on his watch, and his voluntary London Rental Standard has only attracted 16,000 landlords, despite a target of 100,000. The Mayor's primary legacy will be to have inherited a housing shortage and left us with a full blown housing crisis.

He's no "muscular interventionist"

Dave Hill is a long-standing writer for the Guardian

Mayors cannot solve all London's housing problems alone because national policies greatly limit their powers. But Johnson hasn't tried hard enough. With political will and imagination he could have worked more productively with London's boroughs, housing associations, commercial developers and public bodies under his control to increase overall supply, including in reluctant Tory suburbs where land tends to be cheaper, and insisted on more "affordable" homes of all types being derived from planning deals. He could have fostered "bottom up" community projects to densify estates, helped boroughs with setting up their own house-building companies and put more welly behind improving and expanding the private rented sector. It hasn't all been bad; he's had able staff working for him and he's facilitated "housing zones" to speed delivery. But, for all his reputation as a thorn in David Cameron's side, he's been an apologist for a string of bad policies, from benefit cuts to the Housing Bill. Grosvenor Chief executive Peter Vernon recently called for the next mayor to be a "muscular interventionist." Johnson hasn't been one.

Read more: How to fix the housing crisis