Last night’s mayoral hustings at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which was being held together with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of Town Planners and a host of other housing and planning organisations, should have been a showpiece event, an opportunity for the candidates to test their key policies on housing before an expert audience. Never before has the built environment been so important to the future of London.
Except that despite frequently telling us how much they care about housing, neither of the front runners, Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan bothered to turn up and instead left the event to their stand-ins.
The Garden Bridge in the Room
Where were they? Who knows. Their twitter accounts which normally document every mundane moment of their campaigns were eerily silent on Tuesday night.
Even stranger was the speculation that their absence was due to RIBA coming out against the Garden Bridge last week. Indeed there was an awkward silence on the issue from Labour and the Conservatives at the event. No questions were asked about it all evening, despite the other candidates inviting them. Sian Berry (Green), Caroline Pidgeon (Lib Dem) and Peter Whittle (UKIP) frequently made their views known on the issue when they could (they are against it), but the stand-ins for Sadiq and Zac remained silent.
If Khan and Goldsmith are really empty chairing RIBA because they don’t want to answer questions on the Garden Bridge, then that is a scandal.
Like it or loathe it, the Garden Bridge will radically change central London. The privately owned tourist attraction will wipe out views of monuments such as St Paul’s Cathedral and put an additional 7 million people on the already crowded South Bank.
At a time when almost every public service is being cut the Mayor is bending (if not breaking) every rule in the book to throw tens of millions of pounds of public money at the project. Clearly he must see this as one of London’s top priorities. The least that the two leading candidates in the race to succeed him can do is explain their views on the issue. After all, the project is only going ahead having received the blessings of a Labour (Lambeth) and Tory (Westminster) council.
The questions from the floor were largely unchallenging and did little to create any controversy.
- All the candidates (and the stand-ins) were against building on the green belt.
- All agreed that we needed to do more to help train Londoners to get jobs.
- All agreed that we needed to plan transport infrastructure to link up with new housing developments.
- All agreed that if the Thames Barrier stopped working, the Mayor of London would have to do something about it.
On the issue of tall buildings, all agreed that they were not against the principle of tall buildings, but they needed to be controlled, and that towers of luxury housing were not the answer to the housing crisis. Andrew Boff, the Conservative stand-in, was the most colourful, calling them “architects’ toss”.
The main messages
In their opening statements, and between answering questions, the candidates did manage to get their main campaign messages across.
The Conservatives were the tough guys, with Andrew Boff, the stand-in for Zac, adopting an almost sadomasochistic tone. We aren’t going to like what Zac is going to do to us, it will be painful, tube fares will rise, but we know that it will be good for us. Zac is the only one with the balls to inflict the pain on us that we need. In fact, Boff talked about fares going up so many times during the debate even I started to get scared, and I ride a bike!
Sian Berry, for the Greens, gave her credentials as a Londoner, a transport campaigner, and Camden councillor. She put forward the Green brand of socialism. There would be a London housing company to build homes, a London energy company to supply our energy, all financed by a new people’s bank. In short, the means of production would be returned to the people of London. RIBA has never been a hotbed of socialism, but there was a policy to sweeten the pill: employ more architects at City Hall.
In many ways, this was always going to be an easy ride for Caroline Pidgeon for the Liberal Democrats. Of the candidates running to be Mayor she has the most experience of City Hall and that was a big part of her pitch on Tuesday night. On an evening where the front runners couldn’t be bothered to turn up, that shone though. She was the only one to stand for her closing speech and had an impressive grasp of detail. Did you know that London has the lowest level of solar panels of any region of the country? I didn’t.
Val Shawcross, standing in for Sadiq, talked about ‘the Sadiq story’. A man of hard work and achievement. The son of a bus driver who became a successful lawyer. What that means in practical terms? Who knows. Like Sadiq’s policies many of her answers were process driven. The Mayor needs to do more to coordinate with other bodies like councils and counties outside London, establish new committees. None of this is likely to set the world on fire, but perhaps that is a sign that the Labour team thinks this is their election to lose.
Finally the UKIP candidate, who was perhaps was the most surprising of the bunch. Obviously, the problem was immigration, but there was more too.
An interesting theme that came out from the debate was the idea that the public is losing control of their city. Here there is some hope that the next mayor, whoever it may be, will do more than engage in the type of economic reductionism that led policy makers to see us as little more than a number in a spreadsheet.
The UKIP candidate talked about London losing its soul and the need to go beyond conventional economic thinking. It was a theme he returned to frequently, questioning the value that the current glut of tall buildings was bringing to the city. Instead we needed more family homes where people could put down roots, build communities. He even talked about the public health impacts of new buildings in terms of daylight and open spaces.
Boff talked about the fact that people feel as if the money coming into London is not benefiting Londoners (many of the London based architects in the room may have disagreed), more needed to be done to make sure that investment in London worked for Londoners and not just offshore companies.
Caroline summarised, working in London is no longer a guarantee of being able to afford to live in London. Sian wanted to give London back to Londoners.
The big ideas
Clearly the issues facing London need some big ideas and a few emerged from the debate. Inevitability, these came more from the candidates who start the race from behind, the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP. To get noticed, smaller parties need to come up with some big ideas, whereas the lead candidates try to remain conservative to avoid offending too many people. Politics becomes a form of venture capitalism, with the big parties taking over the new ideas proposed by the smaller upstarts once it is safe to do so.
The Greens, with their plans to renationalise London and close city airport, clearly have a few.
The Lib Dems are branding their big idea the ‘olympic effort’ to solve the housing crisis. In practice this means keeping the olympic levy on our council tax to fund a multi billion pound, City Hall run housing company. The private sector has simply failed to build the housing London needs, and City Hall must step up to deliver.
UKIP have taken their big idea of a referendum on Europe and applied it to everything. They want local referenda on tall buildings and indeed all significant planning applications. The policy would have surely impressed Zac Goldsmith’s dad, the man behind the Referendum Party, remember them? Whittle also wants to lobby the government to scrap HS2 so the money can be spent on London infrastructure, although admits that the Mayor has no direct power over HS2.
Does any of this give us hope for solving London’s housing and planning problems? When the two leading candidates for the mayoralty fail to turn up to a debate on housing, in the middle of a housing crisis, one is perhaps inevitably left uninspired.
You can listen to the full debate here: