Mayoral candidates home in on London housing problems

Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith (far left) listening as Labour's Sadiq Khan spoke at a London Mayoral Accountability Assembly on Thursday. Mr Khan wants half of new homes to be affordable, while his rival will "relentlessly pursue rogue landlord
Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith (far left) listening as Labour's Sadiq Khan spoke at a London Mayoral Accountability Assembly on Thursday. Mr Khan wants half of new homes to be affordable, while his rival will "relentlessly pursue rogue landlords".PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Khan and Goldsmith grilled about high prices and low supply

LONDON • The two men battling to become London's new mayor confronted the city's housing crisis in the campaign's biggest event, as they faced 6,000 citizens in a thunderous Olympic arena.

Labour candidate Sadiq Khan and his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith were, on Thursday, grilled on the key issue gripping London voters, with exactly a week to go in the race for control of Western Europe's biggest city.

Londoners will choose their replacement for charismatic incumbent Boris Johnson on May 5, and Thursday's clash was the biggest chance for both candidates to set out their plans to tackle the sky-high prices and lack of housing stock forcing people to the fringes of their city.

In one of the most striking events of the campaign, they were put to the test by London Citizens, a giant and influential agglomeration of largely faith-based local groups seeking to improve life in their communities.

The event was held in the Copper Box, an arena built in east London for the 2012 Olympics. It staged the handball competition and was dubbed "The Box that Rocks" for its raucous acoustics. Christian, Muslim and Jewish community leaders gathered for an event that included choirs, Latin American dancers and a "march of the key workers" - in which medics in uniform, cleaners in rubber gloves and men with open laptops paraded around the arena in a mass singalong.

"We want London to be prosperous, competitive, get good jobs and earn a living wage," Bishop of London Richard Chartres told the crowd. "But, above all, we want London also to be liveable and a place of real community."

The average price of a London home was £534,785 (S$1.05 million) last month. The London-wide median weekly rent is £276 for a one-bedroom home. Meanwhile, the British capital's population is at a record high of 8.6 million and growing at around 100,000 a year.

"Londoners on decent wages are being priced out of our city," said Mr Khan. "I'm committed to 50 per cent of new homes being genuinely affordable," the MP said, and "giving Londoners first dibs on homes rather than investors in the Middle East and Asia".

He added: "If you want to do business with me as mayor, you must pay your staff the London living wage."

That figure was calculated at £9.40 an hour and paid by 2,500 accredited London employers. The British national minimum wage is £7.20 an hour.

While Mr Khan has a punchy, rallying style, Mr Goldsmith has a more soft-spoken demeanour. The Conservative ecologist said he would deliver 50,000 new homes a year - double the current rate - by freeing up public brownfield land.

"We have a housing crisis. Prices are out of control," Mr Goldsmith said, adding that he would "relentlessly pursue rogue landlords".

"There is no value in building lots of new homes and having half of them bought by investors and left empty... I don't want to build developments, I want to build mixed communities."

Both candidates were presented with a bunch of flowers and the event ended with the sight of Muslim and Jewish prayers being said side by side.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Mayoral candidates home in on London housing problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe