Yes it's been a while. Having moved from one employer to another, and with a load of house improvements I've been spending more time with life than pontificating, but there are two elections in the coming three months that I can vote in. Of course the biggest one in the world is going on in the US, and from the point of view of a pro-capitalist objectivist libertarian, none of them seem likely to provide an outcome that is pleasing. Why?
These are the London Mayoralty election, the UK EU referendum and the US Presidential election. First, the London Mayoralty.
London Mayoralty - 5 May: The lowest profile one, the least important, but also the election one that can't help but be disappointing. Not one of the candidates is worth my vote, especially not the two leading candidates - Labour's leftwing candidate, Sadiq Khan, who nominated the neo-communist, anti-capitalist, totalitarian apologetic Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader (then didn't vote for him to be leader, and the "Conservative" leftwing Green candidate, Zac Goldsmith, who has spent much of his life lazily trotting out enviro-fascist agin-prop. Despite some concerns, Khan is not an Islamist, and is less offensive than the vile old Castro-phile Ken Livingstone, but he has had poor judgment with those he associated with. One of his former aides is a racist Islamist. The imam at the mosque he attends rails against Ahmadi Muslims, like the murdered shopkeeper Asad Shah (killed by a fellow Muslim because he dared wish customers a Happy Easter - because Mr Shah was a model of tolerance, as Ahmadi Muslims tend to be). Khan's response, and the response of the Labour Party is to shout "racist" at anyone questioning these links, but that's almost stereotypical standard far-left identity politics laziness. Bear in mind that his main opponent is backed by another, much more famous, much bigger Muslim political figure - Imran Khan (Zac is his ex.wive's sister after all). Not that this endears me at all to Zac, because he is beyond the pale too.
Zac Goldsmith epitomises much of the worst of the Conservative Party, for he exemplifies the self-serving "generosity" of the inherited wealth entitled classes that decide that instead of producing anything or achieving anything (he dropped out of Cambridge), they can "serve" us by having power of us. Much worse though, is the guilt-dripping embrace of trendy authoritarian environmentalism, which drips of the greatest hypocrisy. You see as Zac once fought genetic engineering (organics for him, to hell with the price of food for the poorest), he now fights airport expansion because of climate change - not that he shows any sign of giving up long haul travel, he just embraces policies that will keep the price high (can't have the oiks going to the Caribbean can we? It's for their own good).
He follows from Boris Johnson whose main quality was that he is entertaining and has a slight libertarian streak, although he has a fancy for totemic vanity projects. Zac is neither entertaining, nor has any libertarian streak.
More importantly, neither Sadiq nor Zac have any clue how to make a significant difference to the policies that the Mayor of London has powers to change, and which are the biggest London-centric issues the city faces.
On housing London has a crisis of supply. It is usually talked of as a crisis in affordability, which is the result of the supply crisis, although far too many politicians think it is something different. Khan and Goldsmith both admit supply needs to increase. At the moment London's population is increasing by 10,000 per month, but the number of new home units is increasing by only 25,000 per year. Given average occupancy of over two per unit, it is far below what is needed to accommodate a growing population. Khan thinks the answer is more council flats and to hobble the rental market because he sees increasing rents as landlords ripping off tenants, not a function of a market where demand exceeds supply. Indeed, Khan thinks that new private builds should be 50% "affordable", that nonsense euphemism in London for "subsidised". What he (and many politicians in London) ignore is that to cross-subsidise cheap social housing for those on modest incomes, means the remaining 50% have to be priced to cater for high income Arab, Russian or Chinese investors (although they have decreased in number in the past couple of years). Middle income or middle/upper income Londoners flee to the home counties and spend inordinate amounts of time on subsidised railways commuting into London. Goldsmith isn't much better, but he is obsessed with new builds on public land and "brownfield" sites, but wont confront the two issues that constrain growth in housing - the strangling of the market by central planners.
London's housing problem is a function of the Leninist central planning approach adopted in the 1940s by the Atlee Government called the Town and Country Planning Act. It nationalised land development and usage, giving local authorities large scale powers to control development and meaning any property owners needs to seek permission (and anyone can object to this) to build anything that doesn't involve repairing an existing structure. Councils impose planning demands on home builders that range from a minimum subsidised stock, to a minimum number for the disabled to prohibiting any off road parking (except for the disabled) or even banning residents of new developments from being entitled to on-road residents' parking (Councils in London in particular see car ownership as pernicious and to be reduced by fiat). The effect of this is that house building is a market dominated by a small number of large firms that can afford to waste months or years of lawyers' and architects' fees to meet the demands of Council planning committees. Tens of thousands of pounds get spent just on meeting the demands of people who themselves put not a penny into developments, so of course, this adds to housing costs, but more importantly constrains supply because the market simply offers little realistic scope for small scale developers. With the exception of loft conversions, there isn't much in the way of new housing build in London that isn't the preserve of large developers, and of course Council planners see them as full of money that should be spent meeting social policy goals rather than building housing the market demands.
A perversion of this is the encouragement this presents for developers to delay construction as prices continue to rise. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband wanted to ban anyone from owning land they had permission to build on, yet not embarking on using that permission. What he didn't admit was that the sole reason this practice exists is because of the scarcity of supply inflicted by the likes of him and his comrades. Why build this year, when next year the sale price would be 15-20% higher with construction costs only rising by a tenth of that? So a planning system that makes small scale development uneconomic, but demands large scale development meet the social policy goals of politicians rather than market demand is constraining supply.
|London greenbelt, more land used for this than any other purpose|
The second problem with London housing is more visible, and it is the blight of the Green Belt. Khan and Goldsmith have vowed to protect it and not allow any new housing construction on it, but this is complete madness. The Green Belt policy had two purposes. One was to ensure that some open space would remain in a growing city, the other was to constrain sprawl. It has profoundly failed to do the latter, as people live as far out as Ipswich, Brighton, Kings Lynn and Luton and commute into London by train. London has sprawled using the railway network and the few goods that service its outer suburbs, by sheer factor of housing supply. 22% of the land in metropolitan London is Green Belt much of the image above is beyond that, but envelops greater London strangling people so that those with homes adjacent to it can enjoy ever increasing prices, undisturbed by new people. Indeed, another 43% of land is London is "green", that being parks, gardens and other green space that is not protected as Green Belt, so around two-thirds of London isn't built on.
However, only 22% of the Green Belt land has environmental designations, so 78% does not involve protected habitats. 59% of the Green Belt is farmland, subsidised by the EU, which if made available for housing would be worth many times what it currently is (indicating that housing is more important than uneconomic farms). 7% of the Green Belt is golf courses, and 2% of the Green Belt is buildings, roads, railways or driveways/car parks.
Furthermore, 60% of the Green Belt is within walking/cycling distance (2km or less) from an existing underground or overground railway station. So there is much land that building on would simply enable more utilisation of existing transport networks.
Green Belt defenders (and nobody is saying abolish the Green Belt, rather just let some of it be released to allow housing) talk about "paving over the countryside" yet less than 5% of the total land area of the south-east of England is built on (buildings, roads, parking lots/yards). Only a small proportion of Green Belt land would be needed to transform London's housing market, but neither Goldsmith or Khan will touch it. The votes of NIMBYs are worth more than those who can't afford to live in London.
On transport, they are both equally uninteresting. Khan is taking the traditional far-left Labour view that fares on the monopoly subsidised public transport services should be frozen for four years, whereas Goldsmith talks about bikes and electric cars. Both pay lip service to controlling Uber. However, neither ever suggests that the behemoth monopoly, Transport for London, get broken up and privatised. Both say next to nothing about roads, which carry the majority of people and nearly all freight in London. There is no suggestion that the competition coming from the likes of Uber should be encouraged and extended to buses, nor any suggestion that the main roads be run more on business like lines. In short, nothing interesting to see here, just maintaining the status quo, which is driven by technocratic beliefs in what is good for people and business, rather than reflecting choices and embracing innovation. Automation and connected vehicle technology, with ultra fuel efficient engines can transform urban transport (buses and trucks could run in train like formations on main corridors with a fraction of the pollution of today), but to make it work roads have to stop being managed like Soviet style tools for social change.
Both oppose expansion of Heathrow Airport, the hub airport of the UK that is at 99% capacity and can finance a third runway (and construct it in a location that reduces the numbers exposed to noise, which itself is dropping because of aircraft technology). Khan is prepared to support a second runway at Gatwick, which, of course, is not actually in London, but itself is at 90% capacity and can also be justified (but is not a substitute for allowing the hub to expand). For me, it doesn't help that he said the Airports Commission (the third study in recent years into what airport expansion in south-east England should look like) had a "pre-conceived" outcome already determined, although I spent a couple of years working on it including being one of a small team who screened through over 50 proposals into the shortlist. Goldsmith didn't like the outcome of the study, so he criticised those involved, as he can't accept that he might have been wrong (he never admits that, just stops talking about it- like GMOs).
What the Mayoral campaign tells me is how utterly asinine local politics is in the UK. Two mainstream candidates, one whose biggest achievement was becoming a lawyer (human rights lawyer) and the other who became the polite son of a billionaire, who are ultracrepidarians either unwilling or unable to conceive of the sort of transformations needed to fix London's biggest problems. They are attention seeking, focus group informed professional politicians, and on housing they will continue to exacerbate the problem, not confront it - because they embrace the problem's sources to the core.
So I haven't voted for Mayor, I crossed out all options and wrote a short damning sentence about the lot - to hell with the anti-capitalist consensus. London doesn't need a Mayor, it doesn't need a politician to develop a housing strategy of where to spend public money and how to fiddle with a broken planning system that is causing the problem. It doesn't need a politician to decide how large transport networks are developed, it needs one who knows that he (or she) doesn't know what's best, but if decisions on these are left to suppliers and consumers, then they together might provide much more robust solutions.