“Release for development land within 800 metres of any stations which have a service of 45 minutes or less to a major city”

…said the Centre for Cities in 2019, and supported by Priced Out in 2023 here, in response to the Government’s consultation on the National Planning Policy Framework. Sounds reasonable in principle, but what are the risks and how can they be mitigated against? (Image is of Dullingham Station with an 800m radius circled around it, via https://www.maps.ie/draw-radius-circle-map/)

In one sense this is a classic ‘policy-wonksville’ debate that few of the public ever get to be involved in. This blogpost looks at a specific recommendation by Paul Cheshire and Boyana Buyuklieva in September 2019 in their publication Homes on the Right Track <<– Read here. It was mentioned in a blogpost I spotted earlier today on LabourList by Tom Wilson, who is the director of engagement at the housing campaign group PricedOut. That led me to the campaign group’s response to the Government’s consultation on some revised planning policies which you can read here.

Note that many a politician has started their career in a campaign group of one sort or another. Whether you approve of that campaigning group’s objectives is a subjective call. One of the things that reflects the dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives is the role of campaigning charities. Labour tend to lean towards being supportive of campaigning charities that seek to change government policy for progressive causes. Conservatives tend to be more hostile towards such campaigning charities unless they have such a huge pedigree and resources to bear with their research that they simply cannot be ignored, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. i.e. we’re not talking about a short paper written by the privately-educated intern with some glossy graphics slapped on the front of it, or the document reflecting a pre-decided policy looking for evidence to back it, the sort you might expect to see in a lower 2:1-graded undergraduate essay.

Homes on the right tracks – Centre for Cities

I’ve had my disagreements with the Centre for Cities in the past (see here), but the principle of housing around pre-existing stations is one that can be worked with constructively. At the same time, if you let the developers rip, you risk turning village railway stations into places for urban councils to ‘export council tenants that they have no space for due to broken central government housing policies over decades. The scandal came to prominence just over a decade ago.

Dullingham – a close-to-Cambridge case study?

Dullingham in East Cambridgeshire looks like the sort of spot that would have some developers and financiers salivating at the opportunity to build all over the green fields and run off with all of the profits. No local campaign groups to get in the way, no land remediation needed, less than a dozen miles from of the biggest property bubbles in the UK, what’s there not to like?!?

Above on G-Maps – Dullingham, south of Newmarket and east of Cambridge – with a tiny railway station up the road from it.

As an aside, this is where former Mayor James Palmer’s land value uplift tax would have been an ideal policy: Enable the developers to build around the station, but put a punitive tax on the changing in land value resulting from the changing designation from agricultural land to land available for development. If we zoom in…

Above from G-Maps – very little that’s there at the station, and only village level amenities available for those already living there.

When it comes to providing enough facilities for new housing developments, the record of the UK building industry is not a good one. They build properties, not communities. The financial incentives that successive governments have given to lobbyists from the sector mean that it is far too easy for developers to wriggle their way out of commitments for civic infrastructure. Just look at the Ashwells/Brookgate debacle at Cambridge Railway Station. It is seen to be a success in business circles today, but that does not excuse those involved in not delivering on the promises for the civic facilities including the proposed history and archives centre. Again, privatising the profits, socialising the losses. See the blogposts from former Cambridge Conservative activist Andrew Bower from the late 2000s here, and also Richard Taylor here from 2010.

Given Cambridge’s housing crisis, the most unscrupulous of developer would simply look to build as tall a tower as possible (possibly multiple), provide the minimal services necessary, sell on the site to someone else, and bank the profits. That’s before the previous land owner had got the planning permission and banked the planning uplift before selling on the site to the developer concerned. And that is how the ‘value’ is extracted from such developments, leaving very little left over for the people who actually live there, who end up having to pay extortionate rents because the firm that has finally taken over the freehold is mortgaged up to their eyeballs in debts that need repaying or at least servicing. It’s a bit like the Manchester United / Glazers takeover model where the latter borrowed against the assets (including the stadium) and future ticketing and merchandising revenues, and made a fortune for the financial firms that their consortium borrowed from.

The Glazers’ £790m takeover loaded United with debt that is now around £500m. The club were debt-free before the takeover.

Sky News, 23 Nov 2022

It gets worse

“£1.073billion – the total amount spent to finance the Glazers’ ownership in the form of interest payments (£704million), debt repayments (£244million) and dividends (£125million)”

Football365 04 May 2021

Which makes you wonder how much of people’s rents and service charging with leaseholds are being used to pay off such extortionate lending agreements when it comes to housing.

It remains to be seen if the Government’s Football White Paper (Feb 2022) can put a stop to such practices.

Upgrading active travel infrastructure

When you look at the existing link between the village and the station, the poor state of of the footpath and the isolated nature of the route is hardly one to encourage people – especially women and children, to use it.

Above – from G-Maps here, Station Road between Dullingham Village and Dullingham Station

With such a small population in a county that has traditionally voted for both Conservative MPs and Conservative-led county councils, you can see why raising revenue via taxation to spend on improving infrastructure hasn’t been a priority for villages with small populations such as Dullingham. Furthermore, the small population did not provide much of an incentive for the privatised rail network to invest in improving the station either.

The Centre for Cities recommends a Land Development Charge of 20% to pay for facilities

The executive summary captures the main points on pages 2-3

  • Release for development all undeveloped land within 800 metres of stations which have a service of 45 minutes or less to a major city – with exemptions/protections for pre-existing designated heritage/amenity/natural beauty sites.
  • Introduce a Land Development Charge set at 20 per cent of the market value of all new development when sold [to pay for facilities, infrastructure, & social housing]
  • Require the institutional land owners including National Rail and regional public transport executives (Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester) to establish development companies *that would be granted development rights* (and responsibilities too)
  • Green Development Corporation (GDC) — specially designed Urban Development Corporations — for each city region (similar to the London Docklands Development Corporation – which also means there is a ***huge wealth of history to learn from***, good and bad)

The principle here is that low land value costs would follow onto the people moving in and/or owning the property.

But that’s not without risks – what’s there to stop the first few series of ownership turnover, tenant turnover, or changes in government policy forcing state-owned land around stations being sold off as Conservative governments in the past have done?

The problem is we don’t have enough water or electricity to supply the new homes and facilities with.

Read the Greater Cambridge Board Meeting Papers of 09 March 2023, and for those who want even more detail on what it’s all about, have a look at the outline business case from November 2021

The above caused a bit of a furore at the time because of the principle of the state subsidising a private company for the sort of work it should have been doing itself. See the Cambridge Independent here. Again, that for me is a party-political decision made by ministers and supported by MPs which meant that this was the quickest way of getting things done rather than compelling the privatised firms to do do it through regulatory mechanisms. Does this sound like some of the issues the country is having with water companies? Only it sounds familiar.

Upgrading the Cambridge-Norwich railway line – every railway station between the two cities potentially falls within the 45 minute criteria

This falls within the remit of Transport East – browse their publications here. Back in 2021, I wrote about their draft transport strategy, basically saying “please talk to Cambridgeshire!”. In one sense Rail Future East had the railways policies covered, as I found out when they came to Cambridge last December, presenting their proposals for an improved rail network for East Anglia. You can read a summary of the proposals from Jonathan Roberts in the Rail Future East Feb 2023 newsletter from p4 here. Also have a browse through their back catalogue of newsletters, most of which have something about Cambridgeshire if not Cambridge itself.

As Mr Roberts stated in his presentation, his recommendations include:

“A targeted programme of further infrastructure and improvements to the existing
network will allow the following rail service improvements. A new layer of fast, limited stop services:

  • between the five busiest population and economic centres of the region,
    A minimum of two trains per hour on most inter-urban and branch routes:
    • e.g. an hourly fast, and an hourly semi-fast/stopping, adjusted to the scale of intermediate towns.
  • Providing better catchment access to the railway
    • by use of new parkway railhead stations for car access, and bus feeders.
  • Redrawing the rail timetable to provide reliable connectivity across the
    region (this will require a less London-centric pattern of connections where it is not possible to provide direct train services)
  • Metro standards for corridors serving large city region catchments: to support Anglian city access and connectivity.

Growth in rail travel can be further enhanced by simplified and integrated ticketing,
better coordination with other transport modes, marketing rail as a comprehensive
Anglian network, better access to stations and promoting active travel.”

“How do you build all of that infrastructure?”

This is where public policy becomes very complex, because you’re not just talking about industry supply chains, but also human resources – trained workers who are ready to get going when each project is ready to go. And there are now chronic shortages of those skilled workers as a result of government policy failures over decades, whether a reliance on migrant workers trained up by other countries, to the failures of successive UK governments to provide properly-funded training programmes with costs of living allowances for those graduates or older workers that want to re-train from an existing profession or industry.

The easiest stereo-typical targets are media and sociology, for decades the subjects have long been the butt of many jokes and criticisms – but in an era of misinformation and disinformation, media literacy is becoming very important. For me there’s a stronger case for that new generation of lifelong learning colleges the Commons Select Committee for Education called for in 2020 to provide those opportunities for adults to learn practical skills that they might not have had the chance to learn at school. In my case in the early 1990s the machinery and equipment wasn’t there, and by the time I got to college and university, I found myself in a very narrow path in academia that wasn’t easy to break out of.

Once you’ve done all of that, then the challenge is doing it with zero carbon emissions.

Which then brings us back to the Government actually having a national industrial strategy on paper. A workable one would be nice, but just something that isn’t just a random slogan like “Levelling Up” would be a start.

Which reminds me of Martin Wolf’s article in the FT on the UK’s dual problems

Above – to summarise, London is stagnating because of limitations stemming from the housing crisis and the loss of skilled workers due to Brexit (and the Hostile Environment), and the North of England is stagnating because it has not had the major investments in transport and infrastructure that successive ministers have promised for years. Northern Powerhouse and all that?

In Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire’s case, it’s a case of both: the lack of transport infrastructure resulting, in my opinion, from the over-complicated governance structures imposed on the county by ministers for party-political reasons, and over-stimulating (oo-er!) a sector of the economy that seemed to be successful without realising that there are so many infrastructure dependencies such sectors rely on, that those too are reaching the limits of growth. For example not ensuring the electricity or water infrastructure could cope with the new demands placed on it.

To conclude?

Simply ask what are the things that would ensure such policies to build around existing rural or small-town railway stations would fail spectacularly. Ensuring there was an insufficient electricity supply? Ensuring the urban design and building architecture was cheap as chips? Ensuring limited water supplies? Not working with local residents of existing communities to see how they could benefit from any developments? Forgetting to increase the capacities of the main railway stations that are to take in this surge in commuters? Omitting to encourage some employers, firms, or entrepreneurs who want to establish new businesses (or even some public service providers) to relocate to the new communities? Those are just a few of your risks.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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