An interview with Sadiq Khan

Labour’s candidate for London’s mayoralty discusses his plans for the capital

THE two incumbents of London’s mayoralty, created in 2000, have both been colourful and independent-minded individuals. Ken Livingstone was so far from New Labour’s mainstream that he initially stood as an independent. And Boris Johnson is as quotable as he is reliably off-message (the latest example being his footsie with the Out campaign in the EU referendum). Sadiq Khan, the Labour frontrunner to succeed Mr Johnson, is in many respects a more conventional politician: a lawyer and former transport minister who attended Gordon Brown’s cabinet and ran Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010.

But that does not make him uninteresting. In my column this week I pick over his paradoxes, concluding that although his policy proposals are mixed, his energy and pragmatism are promising. Moreover, the insinuation—heavily pushed by Zac Goldsmith, his Conservative rival—that he is in the pocket of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hard-left leader, is clearly unfair. Below is the full transcript of our interview.

NB: The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

BAGEHOT: If someone is weighing up voting for Zac Goldsmith or you, what should tip the balance in your favour?

SADIQ KHAN: London is the greatest city in the world, but we’re at a crossroads. Londoners have been priced out altogether and the next generation is missing out on the opportunities that this city gave my family. The Khan story is a London story. My grandparents left India to go to Pakistan. My parents left Pakistan to come to London. I will be in the first generation of Khans not to be an immigrant. London gave me and my family a chance to fulfil our potential: I went from a council estate to helping running a business to a transport minister attending cabinet and now running to be mayor of London. My parents had a secure and affordable council home which meant they could afford to pay rents and could decide to save for a deposit to buy their own home. They sent their children to good local state schools where the teachers pushed us hard. All of us who wanted to go to university went to university and the one—my brother—who didn’t want to go to university did a brilliant apprenticeship and is now a motor mechanic (arguably he’s the most successful in the family!) I went on to become a lawyer, helped run a business and became MP for the area.

But too many Londoners don’t have the chances London gave me, and that’s why this election is incredibly important. And unless Londoners—in my humble opinion—choose the candidate who’s got the vision, the values and the experience to help all Londoners fulfil their potential, I think it’s going to be too late.

BAGEHOT: What about someone thinking: “The Conservatives are in power until at least 2020. Maybe better to go with a Tory candidate who can deal with the government on behalf of London, who’s got those contacts.” What do you say to that?

SADIQ KHAN: What Londoners are electing is not an ambassador for the government. They are electing someone who’s going to be London’s champion, London’s advocate. I was a minister in the last Labour government who would regularly work with mayor Boris Johnson. I was the minister that took through the Business Rate Supplement Act, the act that means that businesses in London are contributing £4 billion to Crossrail 1. I’ve shown both in my time as a minister working with a mayor from another party, in my twelve years as a councillor in Wandsworth and in the fact that I have have managed to unite people in the Labour Party and also swathes of entrepreneurs and successful business people to support my campaign that I am somebody who unites people. What London will never elect is somebody who is the patsy of the prime minister or the chancellor. Ken Livingstone was never in the pocket of Tony Blair.

BAGEHOT: You can say that again.

SADIQ KHAN: And Boris Johnson was never in the pocket of David Cameron. What all the great cities around the world from New York to Chicago, from Paris to Austin, from Berlin to Delhi have always done is selected a champion for their city. And the bar should be: who has the values? Who has the vision? Who has the experience to be the best mayor that London could possibly have? So compare my CV with Zac Goldsmith’s.

BAGEHOT: You mention other world cities. Is there any other city government that you take inspiration from? They say we are in an age of mayors. Where do you look to?

SADIQ KHAN: I think it was a former mayor of Detroit who said that if the nineteenth century was the century of empires and the twentieth century was the century of nation states, that the twenty-first century is the century of cities. I passionately believe that. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, has set up a “tech talent pipeline” to work with the tech sector there to train up today’s New Yorkers to have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow. I’m going to set up “Skills for Londoners”, working with businesses to help train up the next generation of Londoners to have the skills for these jobs, whether they are in finance, tech, low-carbon, manufacturing, culture or the arts.

Look at Chicago. Rahm Emanuel has set up an infrastructure bank, recognising that you can’t always go cap-in-hand to ask the government. The previous mayor [of Los Angeles] wanted to green LA and expand the port, but Barack Obama couldn’t get it through Congress or the Senate in order to give him funding. He jumped on the plane and went to China to get the funding. Look at Annise Parker in Houston, where there is obviously a pro-oil, pro-fossil fuel economy. She’s been one of the greenest mayors they’ve had. Look at Anne Hidalgo. Raised in social housing in Paris, a passionate advocate for social housing. In Berlin they’ve managed to keep rents down. In Paris they have helped people to cycle.

I’ve met with some of the best mayors around the world, whether it’s Mike Bloomberg or Bill de Blasio, to see whether we can replicate ideas from other cities. If there’s a good idea I’ll replicate it; I’m not precious if it’s a Labour idea, a British idea, or not. I’ve just come back from a round table at Bloomberg with some of the leading businesses in London (multinationals, tech, culture and arts, transport, manufacturing); listening to what they think and discussing how we can make the city even better.

BAGEHOT: You mention a number of world cities, but London has a relatively weak mayoralty. Even Manchester is getting control over its health service. Would you seek to expand the role if you won in May?

SADIQ KHAN: Absolutely, yes. When you look at the money the mayor spends compared with the money raised in London. It is roughly speaking 7%. In New York it is 50%. In Tokyo it’s 70%. We need to devolve far more power to London. So I welcome the fact that David Cameron and George Osborne are giving more power to Scotland, Wales and Greater Manchester. But we have to remind them that it’s not “mission accomplished” with London. We need far more powers given to the mayor of London and to the boroughs; over skills and further education, over planning of school places and standards in London’s education system, over health in London. Powers, for example, to borrow and issue bonds and over housing. Look at America. You’ve got New York, which is the financial capital. You’ve got LA, which is the cultural capital. You’ve got Washington, which is the political capital. Well London is the financial, political and cultural capital of the country. And Londoners have very little say about how it it run.

BAGEHOT: Would you like London to gain the health powers going to Manchester?

SADIQ KHAN: The announcement on Manchester was fantastic but the government is not yet walking the walk. At the moment it has announced four pilots in relation to London and health. Bearing in mind that London’s population is going to go from 8.6m now to 9m in 2020 and 10m in 2030, there are some boroughs now where—for the first time in recent memory—you’ve got examples of TB, measles. Where public health is very poor. London should have far more power over public health and heath generally. It doesn’t all, by the way, have to be in the hands of the mayor and City Hall. I want to devolve power down to local authorities. For example, on skills you have a situation where civil servants are deciding which courses further education colleges should be running. I think local authorities know far better what skills are needed in their area, rather than the mayor.

BAGEHOT: You mention the dominant role that London plays in Britain’s civic life. Do you fear that it is too dominant?

SADIQ KHAN: No. I’m not asking for us to get a bigger slice of the cake. I’m asking for us to have more of a say in how our city is run, to make the cake bigger. I’ll give you an example. If business rates were devolved to the mayor, we could say to small- and medium-sized businesses: we will reduce your business rates if you pay the London Living Wage. That’s a far better way of encouraging employers to pay a London Living Wage than the chancellor imposing a national living wage. If, for example, the chancellor were to announce in his spring budget that he will give the green light finally to Crossrail 2, that would benefit other parts of the country as well. Crossrail 1, when it opens in 2018 and 2019, will increase the public transport capacity by 10%. That means people will be able to get to and from work, to the shops, far quicker. If London does better, the Treasury benefits. Everyone benefits. Four in five tourists who come to the UK come because of the culture and arts scene in London. If you’ve got a mayor on the side of culture and arts—helping the Royal Opera House, the English National Ballet, the Barbican, the O2, the theatres, the galleries, our music venues—that benefits the whole country. High Speed 2 benefits the north as well as London. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.

BAGEHOT: You’ve said in the past that the green belt is “sacred”. But quite a lot of the green belt is golf courses and high-intensity farmland. And the evidence suggests that it means Londoners have to be crammed ever-more closely together within it. Are you sure it’s the right approach to put the green belt on a pedestal in that way?

SADIQ KHAN: I am committed to protecting the green belt. New homes can be built on brownfield and there is plenty of scope to fix the housing crisis without building on the green belt. I’ve got a plan to do that. I’m going to set up “Homes for Londoners”: a new team dedicated to building genuinely affordable homes to buy and rent, bringing forward vacant land, bringing in additional funding and working with councils and private developers. Transport for London owns land equivalent to 16 Hyde Parks. Why don’t we use some of that land to build homes, but keep the freehold to retain an income stream from that land? I’m going to have “first dibs for Londoners”; offering new homes to local people first rather than overseas investors. I’m going to have a 50% affordable homes target and firm new rules to make sure developers build more genuinely affordable homes. Hong Kong’s transport authority makes more money from its property portfolio than from fares. Why haven’t we got a full-time mayor ensuring that TfL does the same in London?

So my point is: you don’t need to go to the green belt if you use land already available in London properly. I believe you can have good-quality, high-density homes in London. It’s possible to look at hidden spaces, where you can bring back land not in use. People who advocate most for building on the green belt are developers. What happens is, as night follows day, the price of those pieces of land will go through the roof if the mayor says “let’s build on the green belt”. They are crucial as the lungs of our city. If I was persuaded that all the possible pieces of land in London were being used sensibly and were built-upon, building on the green belt would be something we could look into. But we are no-where, no-where, no-where near there.

BAGEHOT: But are your solutions on the right scale to deal with the housing crisis? I’ve seen one report that says that the average London house price is on track to hit £1m by 2030. Are they of the right order of magnitude?

SADIQ KHAN: At the moment the government is taking through Parliament a Housing and Planning Bill that will make matters far, far worse. It will force local authorities to sell off their family council homes, sometimes to foreign investors. It will mean that affordable social housing will be sold off under the extension to right-to-buy. And the government’s definition of “affordable homes” is homes costing £450,000. Shelter have worked out that to be able to afford that you have to be on an annual salary of £77,000 and have a deposit of £98,000. House building is going down while rents are going up. In those circumstances, you need a mayor who plans to address the housing crisis. My Homes for Londoners will do what it says on the tin. And we have to make renting more affordable; we need a London Living Rent linked to earnings (at a third of local average income) rather than the market value of property, a not-for-profit London-wide letting agent to help tenants, tougher action against rogue landlords. I will be pushing for powers over the rental sector. The idea that London’s housing crisis will be solved by building on the green belt or building more houses that are then purchased off-plan by investors in the Middle East and Asia is nonsense. You have this ludicrous situation where there are tens of thousands of homes in London sitting empty.

BAGEHOT: What does a pro-business mayor look like? What is your pitch to entrepreneurs and businesses in London?

SADIQ KHAN: I’m the only one of the candidates who has helped run a successful business, so I know the challenges: the sleepless nights worrying about how to pay the salary bills at the end of the month, about the overdraft facility with the bank, about getting a skilled workforce, about the business rates. As mayor I will support businesses to expand and be more productive. If productivity goes up, more and more can pay a London Living Wage, more can contribute towards London’s economy.

One thing I’m going to do is establish “Skills for Londoners”, a new partnership with London’s businesses, to ensure Londoners have the skills for the jobs of the future. Why not use the London Plan to protect small-business space? To say: if there is a new housing development, I want you to provide spaces for start-ups but also think about arts spaces and additional digital infrastructure. We should also be pro-skilled immigration; I speak to so many businesses who are struggling because of the government’s immigration policies. We also have to be a living-wage city by working with businesses and offering business-rate incentives to expand the London Living Wage. And it’s about using the power of procurement to make London the best city in which to start and grow a business. We’re not just competing any more with Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, we’ve now got to think about the Chinas and Indias. We’ve got to be ambitious in the global economy.

BAGEHOT: Your party leader has some odd views on business and wealth-creation: a 60% rate of income tax, banning dividends at companies that don’t pay a living wage. The Conservatives obviously want to tar you with that. What guarantees can you give Londoners that you are your own man?

SADIQ KHAN: Jeremy Corbyn is not on the ballot paper on May 5th. Nor is David Cameron and Boris Johnson. I’ve set out my vision for London. Where I agree with the Conservative government, I’ll work closely with them to get the best deal possible. Similarly where I disagree with them, I’ll put London’s interests first. The same goes for the Labour Party leadership. In the cases where I agree with it, I’ll work with it. I think Jeremy Corbyn is passionate about the housing crisis and reducing it. Where I disagree with him I will say so. So I disagree with him about imposing a Robin Hood Tax. I disagree with his policy on dividends. I don’t believe that the City of London Corporation should be abolished: I think they do really good stuff and I look forward to working with them.

I’m not scared to take on my party leadership, unlike the other guy [Zac Goldsmith]. The other guy gives the impression of being independent-minded but has spent the last three weeks bending over backwards to be photographed with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. I will be in nobody’s pocket. It’s really important that London has an advocate, whether it’s arguing in Brussels for reform that benefits London or working with the government. That also means difficult conversations with my own party leadership.

BAGEHOT: You have mentioned new links with China, the rest of Asia, Africa. Surely that means London needs a single hub airport with connections to all those places; not just Beijing and Shanghai but the next tier of cities. But you have come out against Heathrow expansion. Why?

SADIQ KHAN: I accept that we need more airport capacity in this area of the country. Unlike Zac Goldsmith I have unequivocally accepted that. Admittedly, I don’t think Heathrow is the answer, and I’ll tell you why. In the last four years for which there are statistics, 10,000 Londoners died because of pollution. Last year a court decreed that the air in London is in breach of the air quality directive. Bearing in mind that the surface links to Heathrow are as challenging as they are (the M4, the M25), bearing in mind that without any doubt I can predict there will be legal obstacles if Heathrow gets the green light, the quickest way to increase air capacity for this part of the country is a new runway at Gatwick. The numbers of people affected by noise pollution are far smaller than for Heathrow. The number of people affected by noise if we get a new runway at Heathrow is more than the number for Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid and Brussels added together. Gatwick has never breached the air quality directive. You get the increased air capacity, the jobs and the growth, plus you get the transport links. More competition from Gatwick is good for Heathrow too. And by the way, Boris Johnson has come out against expanding City Airport. I want to relook at that. The point is this: I am in favour of a modern transport system that addresses London’s needs, but I’m afraid Heathrow is not the answer. So instead of having an internal party furore, the government should get on and say yes to Gatwick.

BAGEHOT: You’re up against a Conservative with a strong record in his local constituency and with the weight of the Lynton Crosby machine behind him. How do you plan to take that on?

SADIQ KHAN: I like Zac Goldsmith, I think he’s a nice guy, I’ve always got on with him and I’m disappointed that he has taken the advice of Crosby’s team in relation to how he how his campaign has operated.

BAGEHOT: Give me an example.

SADIQ KHAN: The sort of literature they’ve been putting out in parts of London is not conducive to a good, positive campaign. I want a positive campaign. I have a vision of a better London for all Londoners. I have a plan and the experience to make it a reality. Like I said, we’re at a crossroads and if we don’t act now it will be too late. So in the next few weeks I will be talking about my plan to fix the housing crisis, to have a modern and affordable transport system, for a stronger and fairer economy, for a greener and healthier city, to keep Londoners safe. When it comes to May 5th, what I’d like people to think about is: who has the values, the vision, the experience and the humility to be a mayor for all Londoners? I think the answer is me.

BAGEHOT: Sadiq Khan, thank you.

SADIQ KHAN: Thank you.

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