There could barely be a worse time to be appointed London’s deputy mayor with a brief to tackle housing. The gulf between property prices and wages has never been wider, deposit requirements are gigantic, Generation Rent is understandably fed up, and house building is too slow.
At 33, James Murray might seem a little young to take on such a poisoned chalice. But in many ways this is the job he has been rehearsing for since he was a teenager heading off to Oxford University to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the go-to degree for wannabe politicians, attained by David Cameron and David Miliband.
After university and a brief spell as a management consultant, Murray was an aide to Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry, and was elected to Islington council in 2006. He quickly rose to become the council’s full-time spokesman on housing and planning, and met Sadiq Khan on the Labour Party circuit.
Last year he volunteered to assist in Khan’s campaign for London Mayor, gravitating naturally towards housing issues. Khan was clearly impressed. As new Mayor in May, he gave Murray — then little known outside Islington — the city housing job.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that no one seems to know just how many homes, affordable and otherwise, the capital actually needs. Most estimates suggest that 40,000 to 50,000 new homes need to be built in London each year just to meet rising demand, and Murray says officials are in the process of calculating how many of those should be affordable.
What we do know is that we need to be building a lot more homes of different tenures and levels of affordability
However, the Mayor has neither the powers nor the cash to make a serious impact on housing supply.
There is a housing budget, and between 2015 and 2018 Boris Johnson committed to spending £1.25 billion on building 42,000 affordable homes. But not even the former Mayor suggested this would be anything like enough.
Nevertheless, Murray is determined to continue building shared-ownership property, and later this month will publish new planning rules which will include an offer that developers who voluntarily agree to designate 35 per cent of homes in new schemes as affordable can fast track their planning applications. Few developers currently offer more than 25 per cent affordable housing in a project, and many provide far less. On this basis it is hard to imagine many taking up the offer.
Developers are keener on an alternative process: for them to hire accountants to establish how many affordable homes a project can feasibly support without making a loss — a “viability assessment” — then arguing the case with the relevant planning authority.
Some councils do an excellent job of rebutting developers’ routinely low offers of affordable homes, Murray asserts, but others appear “easily bamboozled” by endless spreadsheets and complicated financial reports.
Murray is clearly concerned about this because he is setting up a “viability team” which will “support” the councils that risk letting developers get away with too much.
Whatever their number, another issue is where exactly these new homes will be. Murray himself bought a flat in Islington in 2008, assisted by his parents. But record property prices today mean the shared-ownership concept simply doesn’t stack up in swathes of central London, where even the £90,000 maximum income cap for shared ownership isn’t enough to buy a share of a flat.
“Shared ownership is very hard to make work in Zone 1 and a lot of Zone 2,” says Murray. “We want to make sure we are going to help people on middle incomes… shared ownership works better in the outer boroughs.”
But while young Londoners on middling salaries will almost certainly never get a chance to buy a property in the centre of the city, Murray does think they could live in homes inspired by the architecture of 18th-century London — the era when neighbourhoods such as Kensington were laid out.
With developers jostling to build ever-higher skyscrapers, intent on cramming as many homes as the law will allow on to their land, Murray thinks a proper debate is needed on how high-density housing is designed for the future. This could mean hiring an “architecture czar” — Boris Johnson had Lord Rogers — but Murray says such decisions are not his to make.
Personally he believes that the answer is to be found in some of the city’s grander streets.
“Towers and high rises are not the only answer,” he says. “We need to decide what high-density accommodation will look like. At the moment we tend to think about towers but you can actually get very high density with six, eight, 10 storeys — like the terraces you see in Kensington.”