Why does London have a housing crisis? Because transport elsewhere is terrible

Trains in Cleethorpes. Image: Getty.

Why do we have a housing crisis? Because too many people want to rent, buy and live in in London. That in turn, encourages people who have property in London to sell it in order to move into larger houses elsewhere, driving up property prices throughout the United Kingdom.

(It’s also, as I’ve written before, making it harder for the Conservatives to win parliamentary majorities by forcing culturally-driven Labour voters out of their preferred homes in inner London into formerly safe or marginal Conservative seats in the rest of the south.)

There are two solutions to that: the first is to increase the supply of housing – to build more bloody houses, as Jonn so often puts it. But the second is to increase demand: the housing crisis in the south of England is the infrastructure crisis everywhere else.

Put simply, too many people who live in and around London don’t really want to: they are forced to because they are forced by the labour market to live within commutable distance of the capital.

The lack of investment in infrastructure outside of the capital not only directly leads to lower rates of job creation outside of the south but makes it harder to access job opportunities that are nearby. A fun but depressing game: pick a small town as far away from any of the United Kingdom’s other great cities – let’s say Cardiff – as, say, Chesham or Amersham, both on the outer perimeter of the London Underground. Now, try to get Cardiff using public transport in order to make a nine to five to job every day. Good luck.

This has a number of negative social consequences, one of the most neglected of which is that most of the United Kingdom is still hugely dependent on car ownership. If you can’t use public transport to get to work reliably, you need a car. That drives up both the cost of living, but also increases our emissions.

It also makes it harder to be poor, which is why I’ve resolved not to learn to drive – not just because I’m lazy and set in my ways, but because, if you really want to get a sense of how good or bad the infrastructure is, and how tricky it is to be poor, disabled or out of work somewhere you’re visting, you should use public transport.

This mess also highlights the unresolved other half of the housing crisis: which is until you fix the connectivity crisis in the rest of the country, Britain’s housing market will continue to overheat.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at our parent title, the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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