Just few minutes into the interview, I start to get a sense that Sadiq Khan could well win the elections on May 5th and become the next Mayor of London. He is smart, determined, down to earth, and very good in connecting with the person he is talking to. Before starting to tell me about his policies he wants to know about my online publishing business. How many readers? Is it making money? He seems genuinely interested.
I am meeting the Labour candidate inside Portcullis House, a Parliament building with airport-like security, just above the Westminster Tube Station. As the campaign for the elections starts to get momentum, he is keen to talk to Londra, Italia to let the Italians in London know about his views.
“A modern city needs a modern mayor” is his initial remark. “We are a cosmopolitan city. If you look at the history of our city over the last thousand years we have been open to do trade, to ideas, to people”. This sense of openness and modernity will keep coming back during the course of the interview.
He agrees that Housing is the number one problem for London. “We have a housing crisis. It’s very difficult to get genuinely affordable properties in London. There are properties being built in the city, but not for Londoners. They are being sold overseas to investors, in the middle East, and Asia, and they sit empty, because they are seen as an investment rather than something that you should live in as a home.”
His plan to address the situation involves setting up in City Hall a team of experts called “Homes for Londoners”. They will work with developers and local authorities to ensure that when new homes are built, half of them will be genuinely affordable, either though Social Rent or what he defines a London Living Rent, equal to one third of the average local salary. “So if in Waybridge the average earning is £1500/month, the London Living Rent in that area will be £500/month”. He has my attention. The idea of being able to rent a decent home for a third of your salary seems compelling, albeit probably quite hard to make it work.
“We also need to fix the rental market.” continues Khan. “At the moment if you want to rent a property, you go to an estate agency on the high street, they charge you a fee and find you a property with a 12 months contract. After that, you pay another fee and your rent increases up to 10-15%.” His solution is the creation of a non-for-profit London-wide letting agent. The agency will offer 3-years contract, and during this time the rent will only increase based on inflation.
He wants to attract the non-professional landlords (he calls them ‘amateur landlords’). “I will tell them: give me the property for three years. I will give you six months rent upfront. I will do all the checks for you and return the property in 3 years. I will give them peace of mind”. The London government acting as a real estate agency? Free market evangelists might be horrified by this idea, but a crisis requires creative solutions and the feeling is that this one might actually work. If anything, it will put some pressure on landlords and real estate agencies to reduce their fees and be more open to long-term contracts.
Another problem in London is school, I suggest. In Italy most people send their children to the local state school but here it’s all very complicated, and parents often end up in nightmares. Khan points out that education standards in London schools have actually improved over the last decade, citing the Labour’s London Challenge Scheme whose aim was that “every school should be a good school”. He blames the Cameron Government for the Free Schools policy and for having centralised the decision on new schools in the figure of the Secretary of State for Education. The effect, he says, is that new schools have been opened where there was already surplus of places and not where there was shortage. “What we need is somebody to be charge of planning school places in London” he says. “I think it’s too far away to be the Secretary of State for Education. I think the mayor should be in charge. Our population is growing from 8.6 million now to 9 million in 2020 and 10 million in 2030. We are going to plan for the growth”.
I can’t resist asking him about his background, so different from those of people like Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith. Raised in a council estate in Tooting, educated in state schools, he had to fight for everything he got. What I ask him is whether this is something that voters should take into consideration and how. Should they be biased by where someone comes from rather than what he actually plans to do?
He chooses his word carefully : “Your background, where you come from, doesn’t matter. What matters is where you are going.When it comes to choosing the best person for the job, you have to look at experience, values and vision”. When talking of values, his background inevitably comes back: “I believe in every person in the city being able to fulfil their potential. This city gave me the chance to go from a council estate to be a lawyer, help run a business, be a member of Parliament, be Transport Minister. I worry too many Londoner now will miss the opportunity that city gave to us. That’s what people should look at. Experience, values and vision. I believe, and I say it with humility, that I am the best candidate.”
Time is running up but before leaving me Sadiq wants to talk about his vision on European Union, perhaps the single biggest element of difference between him and his Tory rival. “Zac Goldsmith is anti-European Union. I am quite clear, I am passionately pro-European.” Being part of European Union, Sadiq points out, has delivered huge benefits to the UK on many levels; economically, culturally, socially. “There are more than 500,000 jobs in London directly dependent on UK being part of Europe” he says, “60% of non EU companies have their Europe headquarter in London; 53% of London’s export goes to European union”. In this context, “London can’t afford to have a major who is non pro-Europe. It would be catastrophic for us to leave European Union“.
read here a version of the interview in Italian