Interview: Darren Johnson AM

Concerned with the human habitat

London Assembly member Darren Johnson tells Mark Cantrell why securing cheap housing for ordinary Londoners is critical for saving the city’s future as a high-rolling international metropolis

From Housing magazine, March 2014

CHERNOBYL seems a far cry from the housing crisis in the UK, but as anyone familiar with the haunting scenes of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat will comprehend, both touch on the essential fragility of the human habitat. Both are, essentially, man-made disasters.

Darren Johnson
More pertinently for our purposes here, it was his concerns over that 1986 nuclear disaster that first drew London Assembly member Darren Johnson into politics, as a local Green Party activist; from such tender shoots has his career grown. Today, as well as serving as a councillor in Lewisham since 2002, he serves as chair of both the Assembly, and of its housing committee.

“I’d always considered myself left-of-centre on social issues, was particularly concerned about environmental issues, and then I came across the Green Party’s manifesto. For me, it actually drew it all into a coherent philosophy rather than just a ragbag of random issues, so that’s why I got involved,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d just be handing out a few leaflets and that’d be it, but 20-odd years later I’m still at it. I didn’t expect that it would become any sort of career.”

Johnson has been in the Assembly since its inception in 2000. Back then, and for many years thereafter, transport was the resounding issue for a sizeable section of Londoners. “When I first stood for election, transport was absolutely top of the agenda and we did have some real problems; a crisis of underinvestment and big congestion issues,” Johnson said. “It’s far from perfect, but we’ve seen some significant improvements in transport over the years, but at the same time the housing crisis has just shot up the political agenda and now it is absolutely one of the top issues for Londoners: the fact that housing is becoming more and more unaffordable.”

Indeed it is. London’s housing crisis may not quite parallel the wider country’s problems, but the two nevertheless are bitterly intertwined. In a sense, the capital – as much as the provinces – is paying the price of its success.

“The housing crisis is cutting so deep now it isn’t simply the lowest income Londoners who are hugely disadvantaged by this, there’s also problems across the board,” he said. “Many professional people on relatively good incomes can’t find appropriate housing in London.”

As a councillor, as well as an assembly member, Johnson gets to see some of these problems at the local level; over the years, it’s proved a valuable insight.

“We see frustration about new developments being proposed that have very low levels of affordable housing … strong local concerns about the lack of genuinely affordable housing,” he said of his local authority. “Lewisham has been doing some good work identifying where new council housing can be built in the borough. What we’re seeing now in London is a number of boroughs coming forward with plans, for the first time in decades, identifying land and building their own housing.

“At the moment, we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands. The main problem is the borrowing cap on local authorities, which is hampering more ambitious projects in terms of social housing. There is a very strong desire, cross party, in the housing committee, but shared by councils across London, that the borrowing cap needs to be lifted to allow local authorities to invest directly in new housing.”

Last month a consultation on the latest revisions to the Mayor’s housing strategies closed. He set forth a target of 42,000 new homes a year for the next decade, 15,000 of these of the “affordable” kind. That the Mayor stipulated a proportion of Affordable Rent Programme (AHP) homes be capped well below the maximum 80% of local market rates was widely taken as an acknowledgment of the need for sub-market rents below the intermediate level. Mention of the 80% rent levels provoked a wry laugh from Johnson. “You’d still need to be a millionaire to afford those prices in central London,” he said.

Part of the problem, he suggested is that the Mayor is dazzled by the glamour of the luxury property markets. “I think, unfortunately, he’s often so enthralled to the property developers at the top end of the market that he’s simply just blind to the needs of ordinary Londoners,” Johnson said. “We are seeing more luxury developments being built, not being used to live in by buyers, or let out. That is unacceptable.

“Given this housing crisis we’ve got, we can’t be seeing our precious land in London, which is very scarce, being used to build yet more luxury developments that are then simply being left empty while investors make huge amounts of money out of them. It’s absolutely not what we need. I think we need a housing strategy that really prioritises the real needs of Londoners.”

This must all seem terribly parochial for those reading this beyond the borders of London’s bubble; Johnson, however, maintains that the capital can form a useful laboratory for testing solutions to the crisis.

“London has the opportunity to do some groundbreaking work in housing, which could have a very positive impact on the rest of the country. Things like piloting the introduction of rent controls, for example. London could be a real trendsetter,” he said.

There’s a lesson too for the country’s big cities and regions in the existence of the London Assembly: “There is a real benefit in a big conurbation having a strategic authority beyond the level of individual local councils that can really speak up for the people there,” he said; a body that can use its clout to secure investment in transport, housing, and environmental improvements. On that score, he’d quite like to see the London Assembly invested with greater powers.

“Unlike boroughs, we can’t call in individual mayoral decisions for scrutiny before they are signed off, which is something that happens in local councils,” he said. “We do need more powers to hold the Mayor to account and there is agreement cross party that we do need our scrutiny powers enhanced, but that’s not to say we haven’t made an impact with the relatively modest powers we’ve got already.”

As for the future, and the capital’s housing crisis, Johnson is adamant that something must be done if London is to avoid killing itself. “If it’s a city where ordinary Londoners can’t afford to live, then in the long term how is that city going to function? How are we going to provide all the services that are needed to keep a city running? I don’t see how it could be a global player if ordinary Londoners can’t actually afford to live in the city to make it work on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Back to our Chernobyl link: if London is an economic powerhouse then it’s a nuclear one, running without control rods, and heading towards a critical meltdown. Without more genuinely affordable housing to cool down its frenzy, then the capital’s future might be an economic and social desolation akin to Pripyat.

Originally published in the March 2014 print edition of Housing magazine, and subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 7 April 2014

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