London mayor Sadiq Khan has announced the appointment of his key lieutenants – and drawn the disapproval of the property development community as a result.
Val Shawcross becomes deputy mayor for transport, and also deputy chair of Transport for London. Lord Andrew Adonis has been appointed to oversee Crossrail 2, heading the board of that organisation; while continuing in his role as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission.
The other major planning appointment is that of James Murray as deputy mayor for housing. Murray has to date been lead councillor for housing and development at Islington, a post he has held since 2010 – he will be standing down from his Islington post to concentrate on his new role.
“I’m delighted to announce these key appointments to my top team that brings together people with extensive experience and knowledge to help me deliver my manifesto for all Londoners,” said Khan.
“Val Shawcross has unrivalled knowledge of London’s transport issues through her work over 16 years as a London Assembly member. I know this extensive experience makes her the right person to help deliver my plans for a modern, accessible and affordable transport network for everyone.”
Shawcross, in her roles as the chair and deputy chair of the London Assembly transport committee, has a record of holding previous mayor Boris Johnson to account over issues including ticket office closures, safety and fare dodging.
He added: “As London grows, it is imperative that we plan now for the transport infrastructure London needs for the long-term. So I am delighted to announce my proposal to appoint Andrew Adonis as Chair of Crossrail 2. He will bring vital experience to help ensure Crossrail 2 gets off the ground and is delivered as quickly as possible.”
Finally, there is the all-important housing role: “Housing is a top priority and I want all Londoners to be able to buy or rent a decent, affordable home. James Murray comes to City Hall with a strong track record of success, having championed the delivery of innovative housing solutions for years. I know he will be a huge asset to the team as we work towards building the thousands of affordable housing London needs.”
But Murray is viewed by some to have had a negative impact on development in the borough. There are worries his hard line, if continued in his new role, could adversely impact the capital.
Former WPA chairman and co-founder of developer Exemplar, Daniel van Gelder, commented: “He pioneered the ‘if you don’t build 50 per cent affordable housing then you’re not building anything’ approach, which has led to a standstill.”
He added of Murray and his supporters: “They suffer from a principle over reason approach. If they haven’t achieved their principles they are happy to stick their heads in the sand and do nothing.” In the previous year, a report by the Financial Times notes the borough rejected half of residential projects with 10 or more units, the fifth highest rate among all London boroughs.
Others were more supportive. Islington council leader Richard Watts commented: “London has someone supporting the mayor that knows first-hand how to tackle the housing crisis facing London. James has been a crucial member of the council executive, spearheading much of the pioneering work this Labour administration has undertaken to build the most council homes in a generation.”
And, in a flavour of the way Murray may wish to move, Islington has pioneered fines for developers who don’t start projects, and declared viability assessments must be made public. In a New Statesman article, Murray recently called for London to “reset the terms for dealing with developers, through clear affordable housing requirements that are robustly enforced”.
He has also called for a new approach to the development of public housing, deploying “an approach to development that is radically different from where we are now. That means we’re going to have to be clear what homes we want, clear how we’re going to get them — and clear when to stare our opponents down”.
Murray has also floated a draft planning measure to stop homes being “wasted” by overseas buyers who leave them vacant – or, as he calls it, “buy to leave”. “It would stop homes being empty for longer than three months – requiring regular occupation through a legal agreement, which could then be enforced through a High Court injunction if necessary. If an owner persistently failed to comply then a judge could issue an unlimited fine, seizure of assets, or ultimately a custodial sentence.”
However, while some may be concerned about the levels of affordable contribution Murray may see as appropriate, they can at least expect him to fight for greater clarity over policy. In early 2015, he wrote: “We’ve come a long way from the relatively halcyon days of a decade ago, when councils and developers both largely knew what affordable housing was, when there were clear targets, and when exceptions were limited.”
And he warned: “An approach like this will adjust land values down, which of course will lead some to complain. But if we can’t accept land values falling, then we could never introduce any planning obligations.
LPA Perspective: No one can accuse Murray of hiding his views. There is plenty of evidence published that gives us a clear idea of the direction of travel Murray and colleagues have been taking at Islington.
There are some obvious issues that have wider support, such as openness on viability assessments. And Murray looks to favour a clear, simple set of rules that everyone can understand.
But, as van Gelder notes, if the mayor and his new assistant push too hard on affordable housing contributions – effectively a tax on new development – then developers will simply deploy their cash elsewhere, and housebuilding in the capital will grind to a halt.
We’ve heard plenty about brownfield and public sector sites, and Transport for London is now leading the way in delivering housing on its spare land. Other public sector bodies, notably the NHS, need pushing down the same path. But those sites alone won’t solve the housing problem that London has.
Yes, there are examples where greedy sellers and willing buyers agree excessive site deals, assured the buyer will bully and argue the boroughs into submission, and chip down their affordable housing contribution. That needs to be clearly discouraged. But there is a fine line between doing that, and snuffing out supply. Murray will need to tread carefully.