Saturday, 5 May 2012

Ken Livingstone's Bus Pass

I listened to Ken Livingstone's post-defeat speech. Looking back over his career, he pointed with pride to his role in the introduction of the Free Bus Pass and expressed his surprise and pleasure in now being himself a proud carrier of one.

There are two things here. First, that the major figure in London political life over decades thinks that Free Bus Passes are a defining issue in the management of a city of eight million people. In reality, they are no more than small electoral bribes. Second, that a man who is not short of a bob or two himself is not embarassed to flash a Free Bus Pass, paid for out of the taxes of Londoners.

True, Mr Livingstone also talked a bit about housing, in fact, about council housing. It was rather vague and spoken of as if on a par with bus passes. Again, two things.

First, all political parties in the UK have conspired over decades to make housing a scarce good in the interests of landowners, landlords, middle class homeowners and building companies. It doesn't have to be like that. There are wealthy countries (Germany is the obvious example) where housing - like food or clothing - is plentiful and cheap.

Of course, the politicians have successfully created huge obstacles to change so that there is little hope of serious restructuring: they have created the Daily Mail voters and they have created the NIMBYs towards whose interests planning legislation has always been tailored.

Second, London's housing is impossibly expensive because prices are driven up at the top end, with effects lower down, by non-resident purchases by international companies, wealthy Russians, wealthy Middle Easterners and so on.

In other places - the Channel Islands, Monaco - this kind of situation is dealt with by creating two housing markets: one for locally born or naturalised residents, one for all the rest. It would be a big and bold political step to do the same in London, with council housing or social housing (like Peabody)forming part but not the whole of local market housing.

There is an additional problem. London sprawls because of low rise housing, much of it squalid. Most of South East london should have been demolished over the past 50 years - compulsory purchase orders and sensible five to ten storey blocks of flats built to replace the terraces of Brixton, Streatham and all the rest. But by now, anything big and bold is off the agenda, short of a nuclear bomb.

Big and bold is beyond our reach. The sad thing about Ken Livingstone's farewell speech was that it was complacent and parochial - and could not be otherwise.

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