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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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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