The government's Garden Villages plan suggests that 2017 will be just as disappointing as 2016

Building work in proposed new town Bicester. Image: Getty.

Good news, everyone! Britain’s government has clearly made a new year’s resolution to stop mucking about and address the housing crisis. On Monday 2 January – a bank holiday, note – it revealed details of its latest plan to get Britain building.

The bad news is: it’s rubbish.

We’ll get to why in a minute: first, let’s accentuate the positive and explain what’s planned. The government has thrown its support behind 14 new garden villages – “from Devon to Derbyshire, Cornwall to Cumbria”, and also, one must assume, some less alliterative places. Each of these developments will provide between 1,500 and 10,000 homes, and will have access to their share of £6m of government funding “to unlock the full capacity of sites” (so: land assembly, clean-up, minor transport links etc).

But! There’s more.

The government also announced today (2 January 2017) its support for 3 new garden towns in Aylesbury, Taunton and Harlow & Gilston – and a further £1.4m of funding to support their delivery.

With this £7.4m of funding to address a crippling national crisis, ambassador, you are really spoiling us.

Together with the 7 garden towns already announced, these 17 new garden settlements have the combined potential to provide almost 200,000 new homes across the country.

This all sounds look good news, right? So why am I not donning my “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt for a one man-street parade ?

Because, in short, this is yet more evidence of the government’s complete and total paucity of ambition. Once upon a time we had garden cities. At some point in the Cameron administration, we were promised Garden Towns. Now, this ambition has been downgraded yet further, and we’re looking at “Garden Villages” instead. These numbers are just too small: 1,500 homes is less a new settlement than a large estate.

Also, this is by-the-by, but there's no detail whatsoever about what will make a “garden village” any different from “some houses”.


But let’s be optimistic about these figures and assume that all those homes actually get built. They won’t, of course, because they’re meant to be “locally-led”, and in many areas the local papers are already running endless stories about local NIMBYs don’t want them; but let’s imagine, for one moment, that they will.

Let’s assume, what’s more, that these new homes are additional to those that the market would deliver without government action. That probably won’t be true either – the big housing developers effectively have a cap on how many homes they will build, because the auction process through which they buy land pushes prices up and commits them to a certain sale price. If it looks like they won’t meet that price, they stop building. As a result, even if those 200,000 homes do get built, it’s likely that at least some of them will effectively be displacing building new homes that would have happened elsewhere.

But let’s ignore that too. For our purposes, the government has magically conjured another 200,000 homes into existence. Well done, ministers! Does that solve the housing crisis?

No, of course it bloody doesn’t. England is currently building about 150,000 homes a year. On conservative estimates, it needs to be building around 250,000 homes a year. It’s 100,000 short, each and every year.

 So, if all these homes happen (which, they obviously won’t) and if they’re additional (which they obviously won’t be), they’ll represent about two years’ worth of missing supply.

How long is it going to take to build then?

By 2020, more than 25,000 housing starts are expected in garden villages, towns and cities supported by the government.

Right. So in the next three years, if everything goes well, we’re going to start building about one eighth of these proposed homes. That’s three months’ worth.

I’ve been trying to think of a clever way of ending this, but all I can think is: this is truly pathetic.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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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