Sadiq Khan is failing to dispose public land efficiently and Londoners are suffering as a result. It is time for change, writes Conservative Tony Devenish AM. First published by Inside Housing.
Mr Khan is always fond of telling us how many new homes he wants to build. If words could be turned directly into homes, he could have already solved London’s housing crisis. Yet when it comes to action the mayor of London suffers from a poverty of ambition.
The story of his mayoralty (which is now in its fourth year) is of Mr Khan repeatedly prioritising cheap headlines over the hard and tedious work of getting results. And nowhere is this more acute than his failure to grasp the opportunity to build thousands of new homes on surplus public sector land in London.
Back in 2016, the previous mayor launched the London Land Commission register, the first London-wide survey of public land, which found there was potential capacity to build at least 130,000 homes across 40,000 sites.
Yet under Mr Khan, progress on updating this into a deliverable programme has been glacial.
Despite many broken promises it is still yet to be published. At a recent meeting of the London Assembly’s regeneration committee, I pressed then-deputy mayor James Murray about when it would be published and received only vagaries in response. We are now told to expect it this year, over four years after the initial findings, but whether this actually happens remains to be seen.
Since that time we have learned of even greater opportunities to build on public land. A landmark government report by Sir Robert Naylor on surplus NHS land found that 57% of disposable NHS land is in the capital, with London having both the greatest need for investment and the biggest opportunity for land disposal. There is now an ambitious government target to build 125,000 homes on NHS land in London.
Any mayor worth their salt would work closely with the NHS to make this happen, so why is only one NHS-Greater London Authority project underway? In the past two years, barely 1% of these new homes have been brought forward for development.
On public land that is directly under the mayor’s control, the picture is even bleaker. On Met Police land, no new homes were started at all in the 2018/19 financial year, and just 9 in 2017/18.
The London Fire Brigade (LFB) had a good number of land disposals between 2014 and 2016, but under Mr Khan this is slowing down. The LFB recently told the London Assembly that it is not expecting further land disposals over the next five years, except for de-minimis sites.
When I questioned further about this, the response was that “we do not have anything coming up”. Other parts of the country have accelerated co-locating police, fire and ambulance sites to release land, but not Mr Khan.
The assembly’s regeneration committee has now held two meetings – formally and informally – with all of these organisations. Yet both of these encounters betrayed a distinct lack of urgency and ambition compared with the scale of the challenge and the vast opportunities of surplus land.
And then we come to Transport for London (TfL) land. TfL has a property portfolio that is 16 times the size of Hyde Park. Yet despite the mayor’s oft-repeated target to start building 10,000 homes on TfL land by 2021 – already delayed from 2020 – just 322 homes were started in the three years between 2016/17 and 2018/19.
This is land where the mayor and TfL have complete control over when and how they bring forward development, yet they are failing to deliver. This is the fault of the mayor, not the TfL property team, which is working hard to overcome four years of Mr Khan’s lack of grip and mismanagement of the transport budget.
The mayor’s own planning policies, including a flawed Draft London Plan, are holding back the delivery of these much-needed new homes. His restrictions on building on surplus industrial land, through his so-called ‘no net loss’ policy, will make it difficult to bring forward brownfield land.
While his blanket insistence that half of all new homes built on public sector land should be ‘affordable’ will pose a significant challenge to the viability of many potential developments. A mayor that was genuinely focused on the potential for building homes on public land would show more flexibility in order to achieve this.
As with much of Mr Khan’s housing policy, when it comes to building on public land the mayor’s approach is increasingly ‘jam tomorrow’. But after over three-and-a-half years, Londoners are entitled to ask, “where’s the beef?”.