Sadiq Khan: A year in City Hall
Last week, with attention focused on the elections in France and the UK, the anniversary of Sadiq Khan's election passed by largely unnoticed. Yet the new mayor has enjoyed a solid start to his term in office and is emerging as a strong and credible voice when the Labour Party nationally is struggling. However, the mayor was elected on a ticket to address challenging long-term issues that face Londoners, especially housing. He needs to make tangible progress to be considered a success before seeking a new term in 2020.
Labour’s difficulties will arguably increase the attention on City Hall in the future. Sadiq Khan is one of Labour’s most powerful representatives and is demonstrating an alternative approach to the party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is an approach that has insulated him against Labour’s wider unpopularity. YouGov reported a net positive approval rating of 35% in March. Yes, just a snapshot, but few politicians can match him (save for Prime Minister Theresa May). As London and New York will attest, mayors are somewhat presidential. Often known by their first name, they imprint their character on the city they lead. Judged by this standard, Sadiq has become a visible figurehead for London.
Dependent on Whitehall?
But what about policy and decision making? Priorities include transport, the housing crisis, air pollution and Brexit. The mayor’s powers stretch further, but City Hall has always been hampered by its limited ability to raise money compared to peers such as New York. It remains heavily reliant on Whitehall, which necessitates working closely with central government.
On housing, this has been successful with a record £3.15bn deal for affordable homes agreed. On transport, less so, with Secretary of State Chris Grayling rebuffing a bid to take over the South Eastern franchise.
Relations with the Prime Minister have also been difficult at times, with Sadiq recently describing Theresa May in the Evening Standard as “… the most anti-London leader of a mainstream party since Margaret Thatcher.” Such rhetoric is perhaps no surprise given London voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU and there is an election approaching.
But assuming the Conservatives win the general election, relations with Whitehall will need to be carefully handled and the personalities in a reshuffled government ministerial team will be important to Sadiq. He will need to work with them to get deals done.
On delivery the mayor has had some success but London’s issues cannot be addressed overnight. However, Sadiq needs to demonstrate progress on the themes in his 2016 election.
On transport Sadiq has delivered his fares freeze (for commuters using London services alone). This means Transport for London must bridge a challenging funding gap and loss of £700m in government grant by 2020. Moves are afoot to drive up non-fare income, especially through housing development, but it will take time to deliver. These constraints could delay infrastructure upgrades. Although the popular bus hopper fare and Night Tube have been launched, irate commuters have seen several long-running strikes on the Underground, despite Sadiq’s pledge to address this.
On housing, the funding deal and a tougher approach to negotiations with developers is likely to have some impact. But the mayor’s determination to make a difference needs to be supported by several parties such as landowners and councils making planning decisions. At present, building rates for new homes remain beneath the city’s housing needs. The success of a new London Plan and fundamentally, the state of housing market, will be important to driving up delivery.
Air quality is also a major priority for Sadiq. He has held the government’s feet to the fire, but also introduced plans for early delivery of the city’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The mayor is now associated with the solution, although government will be responsible for much of its delivery.
Finally, Brexit is the issue on which Sadiq has found his voice. The mayor is an opponent of hard Brexit, supporting the city’s European citizens, investors and businesses. He has actively campaigned on behalf of the financial services sector, calling for continued access to the single market, highly skilled foreign workers and passporting rights for the banks. Indeed, he told the Financial Times that “The demonisation of bankers and the banking sector is incredibly naïve.”
Perhaps most interesting, the mayor has sought to coordinate businesses and cities across Europe to argue for a sensible Brexit deal. Given he has no formal responsibility for negotiation and is likely to remain opposed to the government’s position, this could be one way in which he can have a tangible influence.
The mayor has had a good first year. To be considered a success by 2020, Sadiq needs to demonstrate he is making a difference on the big issues which voters care about. His housing crisis mantra, “a marathon, not a sprint” applies here, but he needs to convert solid foundations into further evidence of delivery.