The managing director of Network Rail Property on how the railways can help solve Britain’s housing crisis.
Coping with the housing demands of an ever-growing population looms large as one of the greatest challenges facing Britain. But housing is far from the only pressure point: population growth affects a huge variety of industries. From healthcare to farming, transport to infrastructure, few sectors are left untouched by the need to accommodate an increasing number of people.
Nowhere is the challenge more pressing than in our cities. As I said during my recent keynote speech to the UK Rail Station Development and Regeneration Conference, our growing population will continue to move towards our urban centres over the next decade, with 92 per cent of Britain’s population expected to live in cities by 2030.
Our rail stations will, of course, bear a significant brunt of this rise. In 2016-17, approximately 1.7bn people travelled by train. But this number is expected to double in the next 25 years to 3.5bn, with a huge amount of these journeys involving stations within the UK’s urban centres.
In order to manage this seismic societal shift, it goes without saying , the UK rail industry needs to invest in increasing its capacity. Our Railway Upgrade Plan which began in 2014 is our response to this growth, delivering longer, faster, more frequent trains; better, more reliable infrastructure; and better facilities for passengers, especially at stations. The projects include major schemes, such as Crossrail, as well as targeted local improvements for communities across Britain.
But we can do more; Britain’s stations can play a huge role in alleviating the broader challenges of population growth and urbanisation. With so much of the population now motivated to live in urban centres and many no longer seeing a need for car ownership it’s right to think that our future housing developments should have new or regenerated stations at their core.
Such stations have the opportunity to continue the historical role they played in the urbanisation of Britain 200 years ago. With their ability to act as a catalyst to facilitate housing, jobs, and economic growth, they play a key role in attracting people to an area and offering the key economic and social benefits that people desire.
The work that Network Rail has already undertaken in Birmingham, London and Reading shows the potential stations have to act as an unlocker, rather than a blocker, for development in the surrounding area. At King’s Cross in London, 67 acres of brownfield land is being developed into offices, retail and 2,000 homes. In Birmingham, the New Street Development has acted as the catalyst for a reported £2bn of regeneration to the south of the city centre.
Local authorities and developers are catching on to this. In Enfield we’re working with the Council and developers to deliver a brand new railway station for the £6bn Meridian Water project; which will create 10,000 homes, and our new station in Beaulieu, Essex, will provide a focal point for the development of 3,600 new homes. Likewise the new Cambridge North station, which opened this year, provides the opportunity to regenerate the surrounding land to provide over 900 homes.
However, it is not only the changes at our stations that support communities and the economy; we are in the midst of a railway property renaissance with many of our properties, particularly railway arches, providing space to support vibrant communities.
Once known for being places for only garages and light industry they are being transformed into spaces for restaurants, climbing walls, microbreweries and a host of other vibrant and exciting activities. They provide vital jobs and create hubs of activity which can set or support the tone and feel of entire areas. We are experiencing a period of sustained regeneration of these unique spaces, providing affordable space for small and independent businesses to operate in urban areas, playing a key role in local communities.
London Kings Cross. Image: National Rail.
Stations themselves are generally central to urban areas. Much coveted by those who value convenient transport connections, and often adjacent to other desirable amenities, they are a natural choice for housing developments, creating places for people to live, work and play.
These developments are happening – but we need more investment in station regeneration of this kind if they are to play a full role in supporting the nation’s growth. And we should be ambitious; the search for new homes requires innovative solutions.
At Clapham Junction and East Croydon we are exploring options with decking over the stations to create a platform for further new development. This kind of over site development allows us to take full advantage of the draw of stations and maximise the space we have for new homes. It creates new land in inner city locations where there is the highest demand.
Moreover, it can create new places based on high standards of urban design and place making that connects communities which historically have been severed by the railway. We need to embrace these ambitious projects if we are to meet the needs of our growing population and enhance the urban environment.
We also need to be creative about the way we fund such projects. Network Rail has always sought to deliver land for new housing, whether it be through our own investment or with our partners. We have a plan in place to deliver land for 12,000 homes by 2020, and have already delivered successful housing schemes at Walthamstow, Epsom and West Hampstead to name but a few.
In addition we are constantly seeking ‘rail + property’ opportunities: developing the areas in, around and above rail stations to help turn previously underused land into much-needed housing. Indeed, the importance of stations has also been recognised in the government’s Housing White Paper, which understands that they are key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.
It is a track record that we are proud of, but there’s still much more that can be done. Investment in the land that stations sit on is just part of their potential role in future-proofing the UK’s cities. The ways in which passengers interact with stations is changing rapidly, with stations large and small and their surrounding areas increasingly becoming the hubs of modern communities – places to eat, meet and shop as well as travel. With the right investment and vision, stations can become a focal-point for placemaking programmes, turning these places into the go-to areas in the local community and providing the catalyst for further regeneration and economic growth.
It is happening already, but we need to build on the successes across the 2,500 railway stations owned by Network Rail and keep up the momentum. Stations’ role in placemaking should not be viewed as an optional extra or a quirky alternative to our urbanisation challenge – it is a fundamental pillar in our growth strategy, and is vital to ensure our cities are ready to embrace what is coming down the track.
David Biggs is managing director of Network Rail Property.