How can city car parks help solve the housing crisis?

You too could live in the supermarket car park of your dreams! Terms and conditions apply. Image: BRE Group

There’s an SNL skit I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s called Target Commercial, and part of it is about a woman who drives to a large supermarket car park to sit there in her car and just have a bit of a… moment.

It’s obviously part of SNL’s post-election content – the litany of oh-dear-he’s-actually-going-to-be-president-what-do-we-joke-about-now sketches – but it says something more profound about car parks as spaces. They’re wastelands – barren places functioning as empty hollows into which you can offload worries, emotions, tantrums, rages, or...

Houses.

There’s no particular need to talk about the housing crisis in detail at this point. There is one. If you’ve read anything on this site before, you’ll know about it. If not, have a Google – it’s a real treat. There’s a reason this publication’s unofficial motto is build more bloody houses.

But the problem is there are all sorts of logistical barriers stopping more housing being built in cities. For one, the dastardly evil green belt stops the city spreading its tendrils into England’s green and pleasant land profoundly average patches of nothing that have been unduly blessed. Brownfill sites get snapped up by developers with their eyes on a sole prize – large pots of cash – and with affordable housing quotas so low (and the classification of affordable so high), these developments often just turn into havens for the wealthy; money-banks for investors.

Which is where car parks come in.

Look at that sweet, sweet car park and tell me you're not excited. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Forth runs software company imactivate, and is an Associate at ODI Leeds. One of his many handy data-visualisation projects looks at the space taken up by car parks in some of Britain’s biggest cities – Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham.

Within the bounds of Manchester’s inner ring road, 9 per cent of the total space is taken by parking – 357,000 square meters. By Forth’s calculations, thats enough space to build 3,570 homes at a density similar to London’s, 10,710 at a Paris-style density, or 17,850 if you want to bring a touch of Barcelona to the Northern Powerhouse.

Do the same thing with the space inside central Birmingham’s ring road, and you can build 3,440 London-esque homes. Sheffield’s equivalent gives you 1,640 homes; Leeds offers 3,540. Cover over all the car parks identified in Ford’s research, and boom – you could have as many as 1.2m homes built. Job done. Everyone can go home.

Only problem, of course, is that it’s not that simple. As much as most people hate car parks, we can’t just do away with them entirely. While it’s true that reducing the infrastructure for cars can, conversely, decrease congestion on the roads, and in cities like Cambridge – where parking is so impossible and/or expensive that it’s not even worth bothering – cycling and public transport become more popular, you can’t just get rid of them all.

For a start, the elderly and disabled are much better off in a world where you can get in a car, park it in a place, and then cover the short distance between the car park and your final destination yourself. Abolishing all car parks would be rather cruel to those people.

Not to mention that covering car parks over entirely would probably bring you back to square one as regards developers screwing everyone over for the sake of some shiny penthouses for nobody to live in.

Mmmm... shiny expensive things. Image: Jim Lindwood / Flickr. 

So, as Boris Johnson taught us, the trick is to have one’s cake and eat it.

With a typically gimmicky name, ZEDpods aim to be the solution. Erected on piles above car parks, they preserve both the original parking space whilst offering cheap and quick-to-build housing above. The dead air space above a parking bay becomes a home for someone to live in.

Cute (aka small), but affordable. Image: BRE Group.

An open-plan kitchen and living room (with an adjoining bathroom and balcony) takes up the space directly above the car parking space, whilst a mezzanine floor above provides a reasonable double bedroom.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

They can be built in a single terrace above one line of parking spaces, or in two facing lines with a communal space in the middle if the car park is bigger.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

There are double pods, too – with space for two bedrooms, a larger open-plan dining-living area, and a separate kitchen.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

And for the more ambitious-minded car-park owner, the homes can be stacked in two stories, though the construction of these involves resurfacing the car park.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

Hypothetically speaking, a developer or – more preferably, a local council or housing authority – could pay a nominal fee to the owner of the car park space (with appropriate legal wranglings), or rent the air space on an annual basis, and built atop the car parks of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and so on.

And there’s no shortage of prime spots that could benefit from such a construction. My local large supermarket has a gargantuan car park just metres away from a prime zone two tube station with interchange – which is currently space going completely underused.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

North Greenwich – another zone two station with great connections via the Jubilee Line – has all sorts of underused parking space.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

There’s a splurge near Neasden.  

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

A muddle at Blackhorse Road.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

And that's just in London. There are many national rail stations up and down the country that have wasted car park space that (fairly obviously) sits right next to prime transport connectivity.

Obviously, there are caveats. There are always caveats. They are a plague on both our housing developments.

For one – who wants to live over a car park? It’s often noisy, highly likely to be smelly, and if it’s a supermarket car park then there’s the profoundly mundane rattle of shopping trolleys for most hours of the day.

The plans that BRE Group have offered for the ZEDpods have no clear disabled access either, and there is still the issue of dead space. Just as nobody wants to be alone in a dark car park at night – who wants to walk through dark covered car park at night to get to their front door? The potential of these spaces to become macabre crime hotspots is very real, and apparently ignored in BRE Group’s plans.


It’s clear the plans need a final finesse before they become the grand design to alleviate the housing crisis.

But for too long our car parks have gone unchallenged – leviathan wastelands obstructing the long arc of progress in our cities towards that utopian dream of, you know, people having somewhere to live that they can actually afford.

Even if the steps we can take towards remedying that are mere baby steps – it’s probably better than the nothing we’ve been doing for nigh-on a century.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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