On Friday Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow London Minister, launched Our London, a collection of policy ideas for the capital.
His office insists the book, which includes contributions from both Labour and non-Labour politicians, shouldn’t be seen as part of his rumoured ambitions to run as Mayor.
Speaking to me on Thursday the Tooting MP said its purpose was much wider – to spark a much needed debate about what policies Labour should offer Londoners at next year’s local elections, the 2015 General Election and 2016’s City Hall elections.
“In relation to policies for London, there’s not really a rich discussion of what sort of policy you’d want in Government for London”.
“What I wanted to do was get together some of London’s experts and [pull together] some big ideas in a digestible format.”
As well as Khan, the book includes pieces by former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis, the Green party’s Baroness Jenny Jones and Professor Tony Travers of the LSE.
Khan’s contribution focuses on the capital’s housing shortage, one of the biggest issues facing London and one which will get worse as the population increases over the next few years.
During our chat he expressed concern that the opportunities which allowed his father to save up and buy his own home are being denied to the current generation of low-earning Londoners.
“My dad was a bus driver, not earning a huge salary but doing lots of overtime, lived in council housing, able to pay for that with the salary he earned and put money aside for a deposit because he aspired to be a owner-occupier.
“My concern is that today’s bus driver will not be able to do what my dad did.
“Today’s bus driver would probably not be able to get council housing because the waiting lists are massive so they will have to live in private accommodation where £6 out of every £10 goes on paying your private landlord.
“Your ability to to save for a deposit is gone.”
In the book Khan highlights research which suggests a generation “are giving up on the chance of ever owning their own home.”
I suggested to him that in an age where many people do not enjoy long-term jobs or expect to stay with a single employer for their entire working life, this may be not be a bad or surprising thing.
He insists the reasons for this change are purely fiscal, that a “pragmatic” generation are realising they’d need to save for “22 years” to put together a deposit and that their ambitions of home ownership were being thwarted.
He adds that while short-term leases and rental agreements might suit highly-mobile, young Londoners they pose a real problem for families who need stability in order to help their children reach their full potential.
Predictably Khan rejects the suggestion that Labour’s opposition to the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ is going to make worse the housing shortage he laments by not tackling the problem of people under-occupying much needed council homes.
He tells me that in his own borough of Wandsworth there are around 1,000 families living in three-bedroom properties they might not need but only eight two bedroom properties they could downsize to.
But what about the 8 families stuck on a waiting list who’d like the three bedroom properties which would be freed up? Why focus on exempting eight over provided for families from confronting the same financial choices private sector renters and mortgage payers have to make?
Khan says the answer rests in long-term mapping of needs on a borough by borough basis, not quick fixes which address only a tiny slice of the problem and adds that this has to include all infrastructure needs including schools and transport, not just housing.
He’s not keen on the accusation that Labour’s failure to build enough homes between 1997 and 2010 is at least part of the problem he’s now seeking to redress.
It’s a claim he says he’d normally dismiss as “a partisan jibe” and says the priority in 1997 was to improve the quality of housing which it did through the Decent Homes programme.
He also insists the party built 2m homes while in office “which isn’t talked about so much” though he later accepts it wasn’t enough.
But he says even when new homes are built, “70 per cent” are bought by “foreigners”.
“These aren’t Russian oligarchs, these are ordinary Malaysians and Singaporeans land-banking, investing in property.
“So yes, you can say ‘you didn’t do anything in thirteen years’ but we’re now in year four of this Government and year six of this Mayor and nothing’s changed, nothing’s improved, it’s got worse”.
He adds that there’s “no problem” with foreign money being used to build housing and warns we mustn’t become a city just for Londoners but says we should “stop off plan purchases overseas.”
“There’s no problem with people overseas buying properties in London” but he wants local people to “get a say first”.
He’s sympathetic with calls to hand more powers down to London but doesn’t think this always means the Mayor or City Hall.
“I’m of the view that London’s served not just by having a good Mayor but by also having good local authorities [and] a good Government and chancellor who works closely with the Mayor.”
He also seems broadly in favour of the London Finance Commission’s suggestion of giving City Hall and the boroughs greater financial freedom and agrees there’s room for London to have “a voice in the NHS.”
The “collegiate” devolution settlement he touches on in which MPs, councillors, Assembly Members and the Mayor all get a say makes me fearful of unaccountable talking shops which voters can’t hold to account.
The row between the fire authority and Mayor over fire cuts showed how that rarely works in practice.
Those Khan’s supporters who got upset by my dismissal of his ill-researched intervention into the ongoing row over ticket office closures may be cheered to learn I found him more convincing when defending his housing ideas.
But I still find it hard to picture him at City Hall, not least because he seems far too gentle a soul to endure the traditional monthly kicking by the London Assembly.