Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London
Don’t be fooled.
That’s my message to people who will read about Sadiq Khan’s rent policy – expected to be unveiled this week – and be tempted by it.
Because, on the surface, it sounds good, doesn’t it? Most of us living in London are feeling the squeeze and could use some relief.
But here’s the thing: the Mayor can’t actually deliver his policy. He even admitted so in 2016:
“I have no plans to introduce rent controls, nor the powers to do so.”
And we should be glad for that, because rent controls don’t work. They’re false hope peddled by politicians who don’t want do the hard work of building the homes that Londoners, especially young people, desperately need.
Now, if the criticism were simply that rent controls are ineffective, it would be one thing. But they will actually take our bad situation and make it worse. There’s a reason economist and housing expert Assar Lindbeck once called rent controls “the most effective technique presently known to destroy a city – except for bombing”. Even noted inequality expert Angus Deaton thinks they’re bad news.
And while it’s true a fraction of those already in private rental accommodation do see some benefit, over the longer term, private landlords are driven out of the market – reducing supply – while those who remain put less investment into their properties, lowering the quality of the flats on offer. Does London really want to be a place, like New York, where people scour the obituaries hoping to find a rent-controlled flat?
If rent controls don’t work, why is a smart man like Khan choosing to front them?
The three answers are: failure, popularity, and cynicism.
No matter how much Khan tries to spin his success in building homes – his ‘first priority’ when campaigning in 2016 – by any metric, his record is one of failure. The Mayor was granted almost £5 billion to build 116,000 affordable homes by 2022. Now halfway through the programme, City Hall has only started 34,515 homes in the past three years, which is just under 30 per cent of his target.
And then there’s popularity.
The Mayor is now, according to polling, done for City Hall, at his lowest levels of popularity since his election. And funnily enough, the same polling that showed his approval rating slipping into the negatives is the polling that showed rent controls are very popular, with 68 per cent of Londoners saying they would welcome them. Not that Londoners were told the true story of rent controls’ ineffectiveness around the world before they were asked the question, of course.
Which brings us to the Mayor’s cynicism.
Despite acknowledging that he doesn’t have the power to act, the 2019 edition of Khan is now promising the undeliverable.
Well, other than now having a poor record to defend amidst lower levels of popularity, the Mayor has also developed a well-worn and deeply cynical strategy: blame central government for everything. The Mayor now wants to use rent controls – or rather, the lack of them – to pick yet another fight with the Conservative government.
Indeed, picking a fight instead of getting on with the job has been Sadiq Khan’s only tactic as Mayor, whether on policing, on transport, on the environment, and now on housing. His hands are somehow always tied. “Vote for me, I can’t do anything” is now the official Khan line.
Instead of rooting through his £18 billion budget to cut waste and fund more police – as I did, finding £83 million to fund nearly 2,000 officers – or cancelling his short-sighted fares policy to free up more money for Transport for London, this Mayor would rather take the easy route of slating his political opponents in the hopes that voters won’t notice his poor record.
But a scrap over rent controls would be Khan’s most cynical ploy yet. Not only does he want a barney, he wants one in order to have the powers that would actually make Londoners worse off.
If London is going to remain open – and it should – then the only solution to rising rents and high house prices is to build more homes.
Helping renters should also be a part of a Mayor’s plans, but it should be done through extending tenancies and getting tough with rogue landlords, not driving them out of the business or dissuading new builds with bad policy.
But if all of this feels a bit too academic, or counterintuitive, think of rent controls this way:
If you were sick and went to a doctor who promised you a medicine he didn’t have that would make you worse if you managed to take it, would you trust that doctor? Of course you wouldn’t.
So don’t fall for more of Sadiq Khan lies.