Freshers reading this, be warned: it is harder being a student in London now than ever before. Tuition alone costs £9000, and maintenance grants are about to be axed. London rent prices have gone stratospheric, transport is overpriced; Cycling, one of the few good ways to get around cheap can also be extremely dangerous.
The best student pubs and clubs are being closed in favour of prestigious new housing developments. And London’s laissez-faire buffoon of a Mayor, Boris Johnson, has done next to nothing in the last seven years, perhaps because he has also been working variously as a pundit, author and occasional Member of Parliament.
But what if there was a Mayor not obsessed with vanity projects? A Mayor willing to create policy for the benefit of ordinary Londoners? For the benefit of students? With a vague inkling of hope we decided to examine proposals by potential Labour and Conservative mayoral candidates, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, and see what they could offer us.
In London average private sector rents are more than twice the national average for all property sizes, and are set to increase by almost 20% in the next two years, screwing over just about everybody in London who rents – including most of London’s 350,000 students. Can the Mayor do anything?
The Mayor of London is responsible for developing an overall housing strategy, outlining the housing needs of the city, and how they may be achieved; what to build, and where to build it. They then have to work with local councils who often try and force through their own visions of their boroughs.
Boris Johnson’s current housing plan acknowledges the need to build 42,000 homes a year – however, currently less than half of that number are being built. Meanwhile some 344,294 families are on the social housing waiting list in London, according to the GMB Union. So as you might imagine, students are not always top priority. To benefit us, the next Mayor would have to work to decrease rent prices.
They can do that in a number of ways, perhaps by increasing the quantity of affordable housing and social housing being constructed, or more politically by introducing something like a private sector rent cap. For major construction to work, they would have to impose a higher stamp duty on non-domiciled international buyers purchasing London properties as an investment, so the new houses could actually be lived in: Private Eye’s recent investigation into property owned overseas has acutely highlighted this, especially in West London. As well as seeking to decrease the price of private renting, the Mayor would have to introduce controls to tackle exploitative landlords who fail to fulfil their legal obligations.
Khan wants to introduce some kind of rent control – although this isn’t a power the London Mayor technically has (and probably not one George Osborne is willing to give). He’s also said he want to see more affordable housing and cited TFL’s 5,700 acres of unused brownfield sites as a place to start. He’s also proposed City Hall keeping a list of naughty landlords, set up alongside a London-wide not-for-profit housing agency and introduce a ‘London Living Rent’, based on new affordable housing below market value.
Of the Tory candidates Zac Goldsmith was the only one to touch on the issue of absurdly high rents: he’s said he would increase longer-term tenancies (not hugely useful for students who are renting for a relatively short period) and put forward a vague promise to bring rogue landlords to justice.
Since Boris Johnson first came to power in 2008 the cost of travel on both the tube and bus has increased phenomenally – a single tube fare in the same zone has risen by 56% whilst the price of a bus ride has risen by 66% (inflation since 2008 has been just 18%).
Even with a student pay-as-you-go Oyster card, it costs almost five pounds to commute somewhere and back again on the tube. These issues are very much the Mayor of London’s remit. As with housing, it is the responsibility of the Mayor to set out a transport strategy across the city. Beyond this, the Mayor even has the power to appoint the board of TFL and set their budget. The Mayor can literally choose the prices of fares. So who’s offering what?
Khan is seeking to reform bus tickets, so that they are valid for an hour on any bus, shredding transport costs for commuters who have to get multiple buses. He proposes not only a freeze on all fares on the underground, DLR and overground for his full term, but he would cut the cost of a bus fare before also freezing it.
Goldsmith is altogether less generous, and more concerned about cracking down on TFL strike action. He’s made clear he wants to ‘modernize’ transport, likely code for introducing the infamous ‘driverless tube’ that would break the power of the more militant RMT Union. However in a break from traditional Conservative positions, he’s made noises toward expanding the congestion charge zone further, likely into West London. This was an idea Boris scrapped when he first came to power.
Whilst cycling is cheaper than public transport, it is also utterly perilous. Since the beginning of 2009 there have been over 25,000 cycling accidents in London, which have resulted in 88 deaths and 3000 people seriously injured. Many of the incidents are a result of poor road planning –for instance between 2009 and 2013 there were 80 accidents involving cyclists at a single roundabout in Elephant and Castle.
Sadiq Khan has said he would like to see some form of ‘cycle highway’ network with segregated cycle lanes and work to improve dangerous junctions. He’s also signed a pledge to make sure the Mayor’s office would only work with the safest haulage companies, with the majority of fatal cycling accidents caused by HGVs. There is little to say of the Tories on this matter: Goldsmith has promised to “follow Boris’ lead in keeping an emphasis on cycling” and has championed cycling in his home constituency of Wandsworth. However he’s not promised much in the way of funding or expansion of existing Cycle Superhighway schemes.
London clubs are a dying breed. Whilst the number of nightclubs has almost halved nationally in the last ten years, London has been hit particularly hard. In 2013 Ministry of Sound narrowly avoided permanently closing its doors. In 2014, Fabric escaped the same fate.
In the last year alone Plastic People, The Buffalo Bar, The Joiners Arms, and Madame Jojo’s have all shut down and in July Hackney Council announced plans to stop issuing late night licenses, unless “there are exceptional circumstances”. Even legendary club Cable in the archways beneath London Bridge station was unceremoniously closed by Network Rail. Most clubs that shut down have done so as their licence has been revoked by the council. Sometimes this is due to drug use and violence associated with the club, sometimes simply because councils don’t want nightclubs in their areas; they’d apparently rather have nice new developments.
As the owner of XOYO, Andy Peyton, puts it, whilst “each council is only responsible for itself, [it] wants to avoid the hassle of having clubs in its area”. He argues, however, that “if someone took a citywide view of the situation, and saw the benefits in terms of tourism and employment, then that would make far more sense”. Such a person exists in cities such as Amsterdam and Paris, where there is a ‘Night Mayor’ to advise the Mayor on how best to protect and promote night-time industries such pubs and clubs. So can we expect something similar coming soon in the UK? To be blunt: no.
Not a single candidate for either party has even tenuously alluded to this issue. Instead it looks as if the frontiers of gentrification will roll on, systematically bulldozing long standing cultural institutions of youth, leaving students nothing but gourmet street food and rooftop cinemas to distract them from looming exams and crippling debt.
None of the potential mayoral candidates invested much time into policies that could help London’s growing student population. Labour candidates promised largely similar policies, albeit with some (such as Sadiq Khan and David Lammy) being more progressive than others (such as Tessa Jowell).
Potential Tory candidates promised even less, partially because they as of yet haven’t fleshed out many policy ideas at all. Irrespective of who becomes Mayor next May, students will have to continue to fight to be heard, and champion their own causes.