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Mayoral election: Who will do most for London’s architecture?

London City Hall by Mario Mantel
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NEWS ANALYSIS: Keith Cooper interrogates the five frontrunners’ manifestos to discover where they stand on architecture - and reveals who AJ readers chose as their mayor in an online poll

Next month Londoners will elect their third mayor – a role with ever-increasing power and influence over the capital’s skyline and residents’ fortunes.

As in previous years, the run-up to election day (5 May) has been a combative affair as candidates seek to distinguish themselves in hustings and in the headlines.

For the 2016 vote, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, a bus driver’s son, has squared up to Zac Goldsmith, the son of a billionaire, standing for the Conservatives (a poll yesterday put Khan 11 points ahead of Goldsmith). The Liberal Democrats have put forward their leader in London, Caroline Pidgeon. For the Greens, Londoners can elect Sian Berry, a prominent party member and councillor for the London Borough of Camden. UKIP supporters will find Peter Whittle, a former journalist, on their voting cards.

But, behind the electoral bluster, do we really know where the candidates stand on architecture and the built environment? How will the next London mayor shape the city and tackle its inequalities?

What should be the next mayor’s main priorities (pick up to three)?

AJ reader survey: What should be the next Mayor's main priorities?

Zoning in on housing is popular among London’s 8.5 million residents. Earlier this month the Evening Standard, shouted ‘Housing Crisis is Threat to London’s Industry’ across its front page, having received a letter signed by a legion of worried business leaders, including architect Terry Farrell. The size and shape of new buildings in London, especially the increasingly noticeable proliferation of tall buildings, has also featured prominently in debates. Transport is another common cause for complaint for Londoners as they squeeze into cramped Tubes, trains and buses to commute to work.All candidates claim to be focused on fixing the capital’s housing crisis, which has driven up rents and pushed purchase prices of flats and houses out of the reach of most Londoners.

The candidates’ key pledges are listed below. But what distinguishes Goldsmith’s promises from those of Berry or Pidgeon?

The answer with respect to housing seems, at first glance, very little. Almost all the candidates are pledging to double housebuilding rates to 50,000 a year. UKIP’s Whittle is the exception. He wants ‘more homes’, but sees the solution to the housing crisis as a ‘proper, controlled immigration system’.

Would you support the following policies?

AJ reader survey: Would you support these policies?

All four also pledge to provide more homes that are actually ‘affordable’, a definition that has been progressively stripped of sense in UK housing policy. According to national government funding rules, new state-subsidised homes are ‘affordable’ if rented at 80 per cent of market rents – still beyond the reach of most of those for whom the subsidy was intended in most London districts.

The Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green candidates also agree that London’s green belt should be protected.

Also under debate is the application of the term ‘affordable’ to flats for sale. Offered under state-funded ‘shared ownership’, their full market values are increasingly busting the £1 million mark.

The current front-running candidate, Khan, pledges to reinstate a ‘truly’ affordable housing target for London like the one introduced by the first London mayor, Ken Livingstone. Under this plan, as under Livingstone’s, 50 per cent of all new homes in new builds must be ‘truly affordable’ in order to get planning approval.

To curb the use of homes as investments for foreign capital, Khan, if elected, would give Londoners first options on all new developments. He plans also to speed up delivery of housing with a ‘Homes for London’ team at City Hall.

Goldsmith rejects a 50 per cent affordability target as a ‘fantasy’

His main rival, Goldsmith, rejects the idea of a 50 per cent affordability target as a ‘fantasy’ and borrows ideas from his party’s housing policy pool. He claims hundreds of thousands of new homes can be created by carrying out the prime minister’s pledge to regenerate scores of council estates (AJ 10.03.16). This has to be done ‘properly’, he told a Westminster hustings hosted in February by LandAid, a property industry charity. As mayor, he would ensure ‘no one on existing estates would be moved off the estate.’

Goldsmith’s endorsement of demolishing and rebuilding estates is rejected outright by Berry, whose web page includes the banner headline: ‘Condemning social cleansing: I pledge not to demolish estates in London’. The Lib Dems pledge to establish a housing company and to ringfence a portion of council tax receipts to raise £2 billion for new affordable homes. Like Goldsmith, Pidgeon questions the usefulness of a 50 per cent ‘fixed’ housing affordability goal. Livingstone’s target was ‘often not met’, her manifesto says. Instead, a Lib Dem mayor would set a ‘benchmark’ for developers because they ‘need to know what is expected of them’.

The mayoral candidates’ wider views on architecture and London’s physical form have figured far less in hustings and their manifestos than bold pledges on housebuilding. The candidates have sometimes even failed to show up for debates hosted by built environment bodies. In some instances – as in the no-shows of Goldsmith and Khan at the RIBA-hosted hustings in February – their absence has been seen as a snub.

None of the candidates was outright opposed to skyscrapers but all were alive to the city-wide concerns. Khan said he had ‘nothing against tall buildings’ but echoed Historic England’s worries about their potential impact on the views and amenities of the river Thames. Meanwhile Goldsmith said residents should have a say on the height of new developments.The two main party candidates did pitch up for the LandAid debate in which all the hopefuls (except Berry, who did not attend) were quizzed on architecture. One hot topic was tall buildings, reflecting the escalating scale of the debate around the rising number of current and planned skyscrapers in the capital (436 according to the latest New London Architecture figures).

Only Pidgeon openly expressed her distaste for existing designs. ‘I don’t want to see another Walkie Talkie or Cheesegrater. They are, quite frankly, a blight on the skyline,’ she said.

The London mayor’s ability to shape London’s physical form, including its skyline, is in fact one of his chief powers as the strategic planner for the city.

Who will you be voting for? Responses from women and men

AJ reader survey: Who will you vote for?

Written by architect Alex Ely, a partner at Mae, these have had a visible impact on London’s streetscape through Johnson’s eight-year tenure, says Murray. He adds: ‘They are a re-interpretation of simple Georgian terrace housing with brick facades and small, punched windows. You can now see that very specific style of architecture as one of Johnson’s key legacies.’

Peter Murray, chair of the New London Architecture think tank, says the outgoing mayor, Boris Johnson, deserves credit for creating a ‘new London vernacular’ through his use of housing design guides.

Yet Johnson’s input and interest in the streetscapes of London has not been beyond reproach. While, as the city’s strategic planner, he can ‘call-in’ and decide on major developments, some believe Johnson has made poor use of this power.

Who will you be voting for? Responses by age group

AJ reader survey: Who will you vote for?

Analysis by the AJ indicates that he has favoured developers by passing all 15 projects considered by his office at the time of going to press. Last week he deferred a decision on a 16th, the PLP-designed Bishopsgate Goodsyard, which would have been his first refusal. The most recent call-in, a Duggan Morris-designed 11-storey office development near Old Street, which was refused planning permission by Islington Council, was approved by Johnson for its ‘economic benefits’. His office told the AJ: ‘London is growing at a record rate and it is of utmost importance new workspace is identified.’

Judith Lösing, director at architecture practice East, says the mayor could make ‘much stronger demands for the public good’ from developments during a booming economy.

She adds: ‘It felt like [the previous mayor] Ken Livingstone had a much stronger interest in shaping the city. The mayor could play a much bigger role.’

Murray also hopes the incoming mayor will be more demanding of the large blueprints they call in for consideration. This will be essential if they are to hit the housing numbers in their manifestos, he says. ‘They have no chance but to take a slightly stronger view. It will mean calling in projects.’

’What London doesn’t need is a lot of random ideas, like the Garden Bridge’

Peter Bishop, a professor at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture who directed the former City Hall architectural department Design for London (established under Livingstone but scrapped by Johnson), says strong strategic oversight of the capital is essential during this ‘critical’ phase in the city’s history. He says: ‘What London doesn’t need is a lot of random ideas, like the Garden Bridge; it needs serious thinking.

‘Boris Johnson had lots of interesting qualities but he was not a strategic thinker. There has been a degree of free-market laissez-faire and not a strong enough spatial strategy.’ Bishop believes the time has come for a debate about ‘what London is’, which a new team of architects at City Hall could help facilitate. ‘Paris recognised this [need for a debate] seven years ago: that to be a global city you have to think beyond administrative boundaries,’ he says. The London mayor must begin thinking about the city’s relationship to other urban centres, like Cambridge and Brighton, according to Bishop.

He continues: ‘To have a team –  as opposed to an individual – given the freedom to think and question and pull people together and engender debate and raise the profile is something I would advocate. Every city should do it.’

The only candidate to make explicit commitments to beefing up architectural input in City Hall is Goldsmith. He has proposed appointing a chief architect, a move welcomed by Max Farrell, the partner at Farrells who led with Terry Farrell the eponymous review of architecture and the built environment. Farrell believes this position at City Hall could be very influential and is much needed, given the recent furore around major projects such as the Old Oak Common transport hub and the site for a new airport runway.

In his view, the runway debate was too narrowly focused on environmental concerns about noise and pollution, to the exclusion of broader questions about the built environment. He says: ‘Architects are good at thinking holistically about public sector investment and transport. Just having that voice within the Greater London Authority would help.’

Goldsmith is the only candidate so far to identify his favoured architectural fashion

Khan’s manifesto makes no mention of architect or architecture, even in the section about the Homes for London team. This team would focus on planning, development and finance, his manifesto states. He does, however, pledge to put ‘good design’ at the heart of his planning rules and to draw up ‘design principles’ applicable to central urban areas.

Goldsmith is also the only candidate so far to identify his favoured architectural fashion. His manifesto pledges to commission ‘top architects’ to create a ‘modern Edwardian red-brick block’. This would be an ‘extremely popular type of mid-rise home which could be re-engineered for the modern age,’ his manifesto states.

NLA’s Murray says Goldsmith’s approach points to his enthusiasm for Create Streets, an organisation endorsing popular street-form housing designs. Murray adds: ‘My only hesitation is that it might slightly create a “Poundbury feel” for London.’

But Murray believes that Goldsmith and other candidates are right to be concerned about Khan’s pledge to re-introduce a Livingstone-like housing target. He says: ‘[Khan] will find it difficult to get the numbers he wants if he agrees a 50 per cent affordable housing target across the board. Housing developers will slip way.’

Whoever wins, Murray believes the new mayor should dodge dogma and adopt a pragmatic attitude, borrowing the best ideas from their defeated rivals.

Such advice seems sage, given the clear challenges the capital faces in the next four years of a new mayoralty. As Johnson departs City Hall to pursue his prime ministerial ambitions, it will be left to his successor to make their mark on the capital and craft the role of its architects: both inside and outside City Hall.

 

Sadiq Khan

LONDON MAYORS  SADIQ KAHN LABOUR

Party: Labour

Current role: MP for Tooting

Policies:

  • 50,000 homes a year, offered to Londoners first
  • Half of all new homes should be ‘truly affordable’
  • A ‘Homes for Londoners’ team established in City Hall
  • A ‘Homes for Londoners’ living rent offered at one-third of average local wages
  • ‘Use it or lose it’ powers to forceddevelopers with planning permission to build homes
  • Restrict use of ‘poor doors’ on new developments so access to affordable and market value homes is indistinguishable
  • Develop design principles for town centres
  • Cut funding from ‘inefficient and flabby’ Transport for London

 

Zac Goldsmith

LONDON MAYORS  ZAC GOLDMSITH TORIE

Party: Conservatives

Current position: MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston

Policies:

  • 50,000 homes a year, ensuring ‘significant proportion’ are for rent.
  • Strengthen rules requiring developers to market homes to Londoners first
  • Appoint a chief city architect
  • Create a modern red-brick block Edwardian design pattern
  • Protect the green belt
  • Toughen rules for heavy goods vehicles on the capital’s roads
  • Maintain funding for Transport for London

 

Caroline Pidgeon

LONDON MAYORS  CAROLIN PIDGEON LIB DEM

Party: Liberal Democrats

Current role: London Assembly member

Policies:

  • 50,000 new homes
  • Establish a standalone housing company to accelerate the delivery of new homes
  • Introduce half-priced fares for journeys before 07:30
  • Scrap the Garden Bridge.
  • Introduce a council tax precept to raise funds for affordable homes.
  • Establish a skyline commission, strengthen planning rules to restrict the location of skyscrapers and improve their design.

 

Siân Berry

LONDON MAYORS  SIAN BERRY GREEN PARTY

Party: Green

Current role: Councillor, London borough of Camden

Policies:

  • 200,000 new homes over the four-year mayoralty
  • A ban on council estate demolitions
  • Give residents a ‘right to regenerate’ their areas with neighbourhood plans
  • Turn City Airport into a new suburb of the city
  • Establish a not-for-profit housing company and ‘People’s land commission’ for community-led projects.
  • Ensure all planning applications are air-quality neutral

 

Peter Whittle

LONDON MAYORS  PETER WHITTLE UKIP

Party: UK Independence Party

Current role: UKIP culture spokesperson

Policies:

  • Build more houses, giving Londoners priority
  • Tax vacant foreign-owned property
  • End open borders

 

Other candidates

Sophie Walker (Women’s Equality Party); Lee Harris (Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol party); David Furness (BNP); Paul Golding (Britain First); George Galloway (Respect Party)

 

What is the Greater London Authority?

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is made up of the London Mayor’s office and the London Assembly, a 25-strong group of politicians expected to hold the mayor to account.

The assembly has very limited powers, compared with other scrutiny bodies. The mayor holds all executive power and the assembly can only reject some of his key decisions on a two-thirds majority. No rejection has ever succeeded. The London mayor is the strategic planner for the capital with the capacity to call-in and override planning decisions by London boroughs. The mayor must produce separate strategies for spatial and economic development and holds the purse strings for housing capital spending in the city.

The mayor is also in charge of Transport for London, which runs the London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway, buses, trams, taxis and private hire vehicles, riverboat service, and the Emirates Air Line.

First proposed in 1996 by Labour in opposition, the GLA was officially established by the Greater London Authority Act in the first year of Tony Blair’s inaugural prime ministerial term. At the time the city was the only capital in the West without an elected city government. 

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