Sadiq Khan interview: "housing, housing, housing" is the priority for London

The shadow London minister says the capital needs 800,000 new houses and criticises Labour's London mayoral "beauty parade".

Spend an hour with Sadiq Khan and you will leave feeling more optimistic about the future of British politics. The sharp-suited shadow justice secretary combines energy and charisma with a meticulous grasp of his brief and a gift for speaking fluently without lapsing into press-release jargon.

It is these qualities that Khan is seeking to put to use in his new role as shadow minister for London. Eleven months after he took over the post from Tessa Jowell, the MP for Tooting has edited a Fabian pamphlet entitled Our London: the Capital Beyond 2015, with contributions from Doreen Lawrence on racial diversity, Andrew Adonis on transport infrastructure, Bonnie Greer on the arts and the Green peer Jenny Jones on the environment. “It’s not a Labour booklet; I’ve deliberately sought not to be tribal,” Khan says when we meet at Portcullis House, Westminster. “Some of this stuff wouldn’t be in the Labour manifesto, let’s be frank – some of it isn’t Labour policy at the moment – but these are the sorts of discussions we should be having as people who care about London.”

He contrasts his urgency with Boris Johnson’s ill-defined vision. “My big criticism is not that he’s a part-time mayor, or that he’s distracted in his job by becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party. My biggest criticism of him is his lack of ambition for London.”

Khan’s own chapter reflects on what, echoing Tony Blair on education, he describes as the three biggest issues facing the capital: “housing, housing, housing”. Having grown up on a council estate in Earlsfield, south London, before his father, a bus driver, saved enough to buy his own home, he tells me: “I understand how important council housing is. I actually think it’s got so bad that housing is the single biggest challenge facing London politicians of my generation.”

While Ed Miliband has pledged to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020 if Labour is elected, Khan points out: “The number of new houses we’ll need in London is, according to councils, 800,000 . . . it’s arguable that London could take it all. We’ve got big, big questions and no one’s talking about them.”

Would he like to see the cap on council borrowing removed to allow local authorities to build more affordable housing? “That’s one of the things we’re exploring with Ed Balls. There are a number of options we have. What I’m hoping is that the lobbying pays off . . . it’s a good example of London setting the agenda.”

The mention of Balls prompts me to ask Khan for his thoughts on the shadow chancellor’s much-criticised response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. “The reality is, in that House of Commons chamber, when Ed Balls stood up, there was a wall of sound and it was quite clear, whatever he would have said, that the Tories had orchestrated and organised to give him a hard time, and that was going to happen. You can either plough through it, or allow yourself to be defeated by the Tories.” He ends with those words often regarded as the political kiss of death: “Ed Balls has the full confidence of the shadow cabinet, I’m sure.”

One of the policies announced by Balls and Labour – the introduction of a mansion tax to fund the return of the 10p tax band – was recently criticised by Jowell, David Lammy and Diane Abbott, all likely candidates for the 2016 Labour mayoral nomination, as a “tax on London” that would penalise the asset-rich but cash-poor. Khan does not disguise his anger at their comments. “All I say to colleagues, in the kindest, politest way, is: ‘Actually, you look at the bigger picture. Are you in favour of trying to help those who own the least by giving them a new rate of tax at 10p? If you are, then ask yourself how you go about doing that.’ What I’d [like to] do is work collegiately with senior members of the Labour Party to find a policy that works, rather than going for the cheap soundbite, which doesn’t address the issue of making sure that we’ve got a fair tax policy.”

Lammy, Abbott and Jowell were speaking at an event hosted by Progress at which Khan was scheduled to appear but from which he pulled out. “When I was first asked to do the Progress event, I was told it was going to be a forum to discuss ideas about London and it was quite clear to me that it was turned into a beauty parade,” he says. In an uncoded rebuke to those already positioning themselves to win the mayoral selection contest, he adds: “I’ve got no interest in playing ego politics. It’s about me making sure that I do the job I’ve been given as shadow minister for London with the seriousness it deserves.

“I’m a member of Team Labour. My obsession is to make sure we do the best we can in the local elections in May 2014.”

When I point out that Khan’s pamphlet is likely to be seen as his own pitch for the mayoral nomination, he replies: “I think the job of a conscientious, hard-working shadow minister for London is to bring together the best ideas in the business and do this booklet. If I was running for the job of mayor of London, this would not be the time to be having long, deep discussions about the future direction of London, but I think it’s important for London’s future and for Labour’s future. I’m not interested in a beauty parade or a contest of personalities.”

But he notably refuses to deny that he has an interest in the post: “If others want to flatter me and throw me those compliments, I’m not going to reject them.”

Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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