This is the last in a series of six articles on the housing policies of the Labour mayoral candidates. There are many overlaps between them but also some important differences. In the run up to the selection vote, #redbrickblog will look at some of the issues arising during the debate.
Christian Wolmar on housing
As a mayoral candidate, Christian Wolmar is the long distance runner, or perhaps cyclist would be a better analogy to choose. He entered the race in 2012, known as a transport journalist but not as a politician, with the objective of raising issues that required ‘long-term thinking’. Ever since, he has toiled around London speaking at meetings and getting himself better known – to the extent that he is now noticed in opinion polls and achieved the number of nominations he needed to continue to the shortlist.
Despite his background in transport, Wolmar describes housing as the number one problem facing any incoming mayor. He does have a historic connection to the issue, working on the magazine Roof in the 1980s (when I was at Shelter). And, like David Lammy, before the Election he published a long report on his own housing policies – called Putting a roof over our Heads: the Wolmar for London Housing Vision. Like all the candidates, his policies are a mix of things he would do with current powers and things he would like extra powers to do.
Despite the proper focus in the London housing debate on new building, Wolmar stresses the importance of the fact that the stock of houses is relatively old and expensive to maintain, with 15% dating from the 19th century and more than half from before 1940 – only one in ten have been built since 1991.
He is scathing about what is currently being built in the capital. He condemns the current mayor’s ‘affordable homes’ policy, with rents up to 80% of an escalating market value ‘which, for the most part, is completely unaffordable for ordinary Londoners’. He objects to the building of so many luxury homes, especially the dominance of overseas sales: ‘Big claims (by Johnson) about the numbers of new homes are irrelevant if many are designed solely for an export market that will not house any Londoners. We need the right sort of homes.’ He therefore supports restrictions on foreign sales and a return to a comprehensive programme of social rent.
For private tenants, he supports limits on rent increases, raising examples from California, New York and Germany, and better security of tenure.
Of course, having worthy aims is one thing, finding the money is another. Here Wolmar backs a fundamental reform of property taxes, starting with the proposals of the London Finance Commission in 2013. To be effective, the London mayor needs access to resources on a comparable basis to the mayors of New York or Paris. This is essential, he says, because of the problems of dealing with London’s current size and its rate of population growth.
Wolmar’s ‘Housing Vision’ is organised around 8 straplines:
- Devolve property taxes to London: Primarily council tax and business rates, including setting tax rates, banding and discounts and, crucially, revaluation. The package should be fiscally neutral, and he excludes Stamp Duty from the devolved package.
- Update council tax: Introducing new higher tax bands to end the regressive nature of council tax.
- Create a land value tax: Starting by revising business rates so they are based on site values.
- A better deal for renters: A move towards longer tenancies, rent increases during tenancies capped at RPI, a ban on rip-off letting fees by agents. Revise the London Rental Standard (currently voluntary) and set up a Rogue Landlords Taskforce to tackle landlords operating outside the law.
- A new homes delivery agency: The current mayor’s housing strategy requires an inadequate 42,000 extra homes a year. Wolmar would establish a New Homes Delivery Agency to focus on getting brownfield sites developed, buying land wherever possible at pre-planning values.
- Stop the wrong sort of development: As mayor, Wolmar would ‘call in’ more developments, insisting on more affordable housing and refusing schemes like Earls Court.
- Restrict overseas buyers: Tackling empty homes and buy-to-leave will be a priority, including greater use of compulsory purchase.
- Retrofit home insulation: A much faster and more ambitious programme is needed.
Wolmar’s achievement in getting through to the shortlist as someone who has never been an MP or even a councillor is significant and he has achieved his first aim of improving the debate. We will have to wait to see how his efforts translate into votes – but he is an optimistic outsider: “I really believe I can do this. After all, [New York mayor] Bill de Blasio started out fourth in the primary.”