Cambridge cannot solve its housing issues until London’s are resolved. And that requires radical action from ministers

‘Travel to work’ maps from the Office for National Statistics reveal how extreme the problem is. Sadly that radical action has not been forthcoming – and it does not look likely in the short to medium term either

You can view the ONS Travel to Work Maps here

London’s commuter reach extends far and wide – far, far beyond Cambridge – and beyond Peterborough.

Although the map below does not show the actual numbers (you’d need to numbercrunch the data on the spreadsheets that this data map is based on), you get a sense of London’s housing crisis and how it has a knock-on impact for towns and cities within a 100mile radius – and in particular those that have a travel time of under an hour each way.

Above – from ONS Maps here – the Green indicates London’s ‘travel to work area’ by people using the train to get to work

In Cambridge, the rise of people using Cambridge Station (not Cambridge North) has been incredible – as Cambs Insight demonstrates.

Above – from Cambridgeshire Insights’ report on county passenger traffic from high use stations 2004-18

It’s easy to say: “Well in hindsight…” but it remains the case that Cambridge did get the additional transport infrastructure our city so desperately needed – even when it became clear what was happening to railway demand.

The problems with London cannot be solved by the Mayor of London in the current system – the mayoralty has too few powers and even fewer resources

The paper “Market Failure & the London Housing Market” from May 2003 is worth a read on this – not least it picks up on the relationship between land owners (and land bankers/speculators) with potential developers who want to build.

Above – from the GLA 20 years ago

It states:

“Governments intervene through regulation, taxation, subsidy and direct provision or allocation There are four main ways in which government intervenes.

  • Regulation of the market – providing a legal framework including standards (eg planning regulation).
  • Encouraging market operation – provision of market information.
  • Taxation or subsidy policies – to deter and encourage activities.
  • Government provision and or allocation (eg provision of council housing, allocating resources to housing associations.

“Some key areas of market failure in the housing market are:

  • house price overshooting – imperfect information and discrimination amongst consumers
  • induces slow adjustment of demand
  • slow delivery of new housing – short run supply inelasticity
  • under supply of affordable housing
  • capital market imperfections
  • low quality housing.”

Above – low quality housing, something exposed both by the Grenfell Inquiry and also by ITV News’ social housing investigation

Combining Cambridge’s own land and property bubbles from its own global brand with the London housing crisis, what hope is there for our city and its city council with all the powers of a market town? This reflects Dr Andy Willams’ comment to the Queen Edith’s Community Forum last night about Cambridge being too small a geographical area to absorb the ambitions of the global science/tech sector: it must be more spread out geographically.

The 2003 report also states:

“Some indirect ways in which central government can help to tackle affordability include:

  • introducing a more effective system of housing benefit
  • introducing a new form of housing allowance targeted at low income home owners
  • bolstering schemes designed to facilitate home ownership amongst those with low incomes (eg subsidised shared ownership)
  • increase taxation on empty homes
  • scrapping the Right to Buy scheme”

On the last two, there is no ambition from the Conservatives in government to make those policy changes – both of which go against their ideology of low taxation and private ownership. Furthermore, for something like housing the policies need to be ones that change behaviour – so the taxes on empty homes have to be high enough to persuade such property owners to sell up. That or empower councils to confiscate such properties if they remain empty for a specified long period of time.

Gordon Brown was warned in 2003 of a housing boom-bust by the IMF.

“In its annual health check of the UK economy, the IMF tempered its praise for the “enviable performance” of the economy in recent years with a warning that the chancellor’s budget forecasts are over-optimistic and that interest rates need to rise to prevent a boom-bust in the housing market.”

The Guardian, 19 Dec 2003

And that’s before we look at the issue of the City of London’s weak regulation and law enforcement.

““The City [of London] is hooked on dirty money. Foreign money, often illicit, has inflated the housing market [while] Britons can’t get on the housing ladder.””

Prem Sikka to the House of Lords, quoted in The Guardian, 17 Feb 2022
“What does the housing and transport knock-on impact look like for Cambridge?”

First, look at the buses:

Above – Cambridge & Peterborough’s bus travel to work area commuting patterns 2011 – from the ONS here

The first thing that strikes me is how Cambridge’s local government boundaries do not match the travel to work area. Furthermore, the Combined Authority has got to manage two separate travel to work areas – effectively two economic sub regions. The whole concept of combined authorities would be there would be a single directly-elected person responsible for single economic regions or sub-regions.

Travel-to-work areas and commuting patterns broken down by income levels

The greater area for those with higher qualifications (as an imperfect proxy for those on higher incomes) – in particular from places where there are no direct east-west rail links, speak volumes.

Above – travel to work areas for people with lower qualifications (again as a proxy for those on low incomes). Note the area for Cambridge in dark green (with the triangle of the A11-A14-M11 upside-down triangle) broadly correlates with the railway line.

Above – to the same scale but for people with higher qualifications as a proxy for incomes – are these workers more likely to be car commuters? In which case what does this say about the case for light rail vs buses?

Travel-to-work areas and commuting patterns broken down by age cohort

It gets more interesting here. For young adults, there’s north-south spine from Saffron Walden up to March. Again, it crosses county boundaries – something our political governance structures cannot accommodate.

Compare that with 25-34 year olds

Above – 25-34 year olds’ travel to work/commuting patterns

Above – 50-64 year olds’ travel to work/commuting patterns.

“All of this puts Cambridge’s transport and housing problems into a very different perspective. How can a market-town-style council based on its 1935-era boundaries hope to solve our city’s (and county’s) problems?”

It can’t. No council leader, no council chief executive, and no executive mayor has a hope of coping under the current system. This is why (in my opinion at least) the people of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, and the surrounding market towns over county boundaries, must start the conversation of redrawing the boundaries, and demanding more empowered institutions of local government and public service delivery from ministers and Parliament. Those conversations must start at the local election campaigns starting…tomorrow! One thing that would help? Consistent and shared geographical boundaries for different organisations. At least that way you get horizontal consistency as well as vertical consistency within what are inevitable hierarchical institutions. It also supports political and democratic accountability. A starting point for me for some time has been a unitary council with a light rail underpinning it.

Where would you start?

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:

%d bloggers like this: