London Mayor Sadiq Khan
London Mayor Sadiq Khan Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Despite his high profile and ambitious agenda, Sadiq Khan holds one of Britain’s least understood offices.

Elected mayor of London last May with a healthy majority, Sadiq Khan made international headlines as the first Muslim to head a Western European capital—a fact that, despite his opponents’ best effort, wasn’t a major issue in London’s mayoral conversation. Now eight months on the job, Khan remains a public figure with a surprisingly high profile given his limited authority.

Even for people not enmeshed in the niceties of Britain’s municipal wranglings, Khan’s performance is an interesting subject for exploration. He has emerged as one of the key voices fighting the fallout of Brexit. He also represents an office that, unbeknown to many, is radically different in design from other big city mayoralties across the world. While Khan’s manipulation of soft power has been strong, his office’s actual hard power to enact policies is extremely weak. So how is he doing on the job?

It’s a surprisingly complex question to assess, because there’s something of a mist in the air; not so much around Khan himself as around what anyone in his position can and can’t do. What few people realize is that the office of London mayor is radically different from its equivalents in major cities like New York, Chicago, Paris, or Madrid. The role itself was only created in 2000 and, despite its high public profile, has extremely limited powers.

Thanks to its youth, the office (while popular with citizens) is quite shallowly embedded in British political life. This means that even many Londoners are unclear where the limits of the role itself end and the limits of any particular incumbent to make use of that role begin.

Tight purse strings

London’s mayor may have a high profile, but what he doesn’t have—surprising, given that he’s heading up one of the world’s richest cities—is a whole lot of money. The mayor’s ability to raise and allocate funds has always been puny.

“The real constraint on the mayor is financial. Not only can he not raise taxes, he has no control over the tax regime,” says Ben Rogers, director of the think tank Centre for London. “He can't design taxes that are fit for purpose for the city, and only 7 percent of taxes raised in London stay with either the mayor or the boroughs. All the rest is passed up to central government, from which it is passed back down.”

That doesn’t mean that only 7 percent of London taxes are spent in the city. It means that the lion’s share of taxes go to central government and then are redistributed back to the city to be spent as the national government sees fit. So not only is the mayor’s remit more limited than his title might suggest, he also has fairly little cash to support his policy goals.

Despite these constraints, London’s mayoralty has had some important successes. London’s first mayor (and a former leader of the Greater London Council), Ken Livingstone introduced the Congestion Charge for central London in 2003, creating a bold, world-shaping template for slashing pollution (albeit one that’s becoming obsolete.) His successor Boris Johnson set the city back by halving the size of this Congestion Charge zone, but he made progress by pushing through properly segregated cycle superhighways against some resistance. So while Khan’s powers are anything but absolute, he does have the potential to do good work.

Khan So Far: Promising on Transit...

“Khan has done pretty well on transport already,” says Andrew Carter, deputy chief executive of the urban think tank Centre for Cities:

His headline win was to do something very visible on buses, which matters to very many people. He created the Hopper Fare which allows two bus trips within an hour for the price of one, which is highly populist, but meets a real need. He's also been pretty vocal on the Southern Rail Fiasco [where the mayor petitioned to take over a failing ex-urban rail company].

When it comes to managing pollution, a problem substantially caused by transit and thus under the mayor’s remit, there’s also a feeling of optimism in the air. “Khan has a tremendously better attitude towards dealing with air pollution than his predecessor,” says James Thornton, CEO of Client Earth, an environmental law group that has successfully sued for an injunction against the U.K. government for its failure to tackle air pollution. “His very first action in office was to join our lawsuit against the national government, which in itself was quite a message.”

It’s true that the city has already seen some action on its appalling air quality since last May. Last week, the mayor announced a £10 “toxicity charge” to be paid by the city’s most polluting vehicles, while he has already promised to double spending on cycling infrastructure. He is also expanding London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, a zone where a fee is levied for all high-polluting vehicles that is due to be enforced starting September 2020. The zone would cover all of London as far as the North and South Circular Beltways, which lie far beyond central London, but comfortably within the city limits. The mayor has also increased awareness by creating a pollution alert system for the city.

Despite the great improvement on his predecessor, there is still some rumbling frustration around slowness to act on air quality. Compared to Paris, where radical anti-pollution measures have already been introduced, London’s response is somewhat muted. It would be within the mayor’s remit, for example, to follow Paris’ lead and ban diesel-fueled vehicles and be even more proactive in reducing city center car lanes. He would undeniably face a fierce backlash from Britain’s powerful right-wing media, but without taking this risk, his current performance hovers somewhere around the B mark.

...But business as usual on housing

Where Khan may be failing so far is in the area of housing and planning—though not all experts agree. For Andrew Carter, his performance has been good, but marred by a refusal to consider building on the Green Belt, the doughnut of protected unbuilt land that separates Greater London from its exurbs.

“Khan has been vocal about the need for more affordable housing,” Carter says. “One critique of him, however, is that he's ruled out housing development on greenfield sites, when it's disingenuous to suggest that London's housing crisis can be dealt with without looking at these sort of sites.”

Others take a bleaker view, citing what they see as compromises that favor developers over residents. In his manifesto, the mayor promised to assist the boroughs in reaching a threshold of 50 percent of newly built homes being “affordable,” itself a slippery term that can at times include sub-market rate housing whose cost is still far beyond that of the average pocket. As veteran London housing campaigner Michael Edwards told CityLab, this target looks like it’s being jettisoned

“Khan hasn't yet approached demanding this 50 percent affordable housing and it looks like he may secure around 35 percent,” Edwards says. “But there's no sign of any of that would have to be social housing [public housing available for below market rate rent]. London still has many thousands of people living in social housing built over the last century and rented at fairly low rents.”

As Edwards notes, this social housing remains one of London’s key battlegrounds, as policies dating back to the 1980s continue to release portions of it out of state control and into the private market. Depleting numbers further are project demolitions that rebuild such areas more densely, invariably with a smaller portion of public housing left after the rebuild.

“This is a way of increasing the total housing stock but reducing the social housing content,” he says. “Tenants’ organizations and low- to middle-income Londoners were hoping the mayor would be very firm about defending social housing from further demolitions. He hasn't done that, and at the moment he seems to be very much siding with real estate interests.”

London's City Hall and Tower Bridge
London City Hall, first opened in 2002. (Raphael Chekroun/Flickr)

A hugely centralized state

This makes Khan’s performance something of a mixed bag: promising if incomplete on transit and air quality, disappointing for those seeking greater investment in public housing. It would still be a mistake to compare him too directly to counterparts in other European capitals, however, because of the strikingly different scope of his office and authority. To explain how requires a deep dive into the way London’s institutions work. The answers suggest structural problems that stretch beyond the ability of any one mayor to overcome.

Many big cities have two tiers of government—on an upper tier, the mayoralty and, one rung down, local municipalities such as Berlin’s Bezirke or Paris’ arrondissements. In London, the second tier—the city’s 33 boroughs—carry the greatest share of responsibility. Boroughs provide not just basic services like trash collection, but also education and social services. They are responsible for much public housing and road maintenance, and are governed locally through elected councils. These boroughs have mayors too, but they are ceremonial positions: ribbon-cutters rather than rulers. The real power lies with council leaders, who are not directly elected, but, echoing the Westminster system, chosen by the party that has won the most seats on the council.

On top of this, London used to have a sort of central uber-borough called the Greater London Council. This was abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, along with all similar authorities across British cities. The motivations were substantially political—all these councils were held by the opposition Labour Party. But in London, where the council had some powers to manage housing and education, it was involved in regular, distracting jurisdiction battles with the boroughs. When the Mayor of London role was reintroduced in 2000 under the Blair government, it was framed along different lines, partly as a way of avoiding this clash. Its relatively limited powers may also have been a way of minimising public distrust of a new office—possibly a good move, given that the institution itself now has high approval ratings.

Following the American system (and thus breaking new ground for Britain) the office was to be directly elected, along with a city assembly with limited powers. The chosen mayor would then have almost total power over city transit and some control over land use planning, but act elsewhere primarily as a coordinator and cheerleader for the city. The mayor’s office would, for example, create a policy framework on issues such as housing, one that would guide the authorities who were actually responsible for implementing them: the boroughs. While the idea of a charismatic, directly elected figure heading the city was an American import, one central aspect of America’s mayoral template was left behind on the other side of the Atlantic: tax raising powers.

What would be mayoral responsibilities in other cities are devolved down to London’s boroughs, but that doesn’t mean boroughs have a say on nationally-imposed policies that affect them.

Indeed, across the U.K. many of the austerity cuts imposed by Britain’s national government have been shouldered onto local boroughs, who find themselves at the sharp edge of government decisions they have no control over. Sadiq Khan has so far scored highly as a public face for London, but when neither he nor any of his local government colleagues have executive power to match their public profiles, then these offices are being used as a fig leaf to cover up a democratic deficit. Khan may be good at flying London’s flag, but he—and Londoners through him—need a greater say on how their city is actually run.

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