The polls are wrong: the Piccadilly is clearly the best tube line

Piccadilly line trains in depot at Northfields. Image: Getty.

It’s official: the Docklands Light Railway is a Tube Line, and a popular one at that. YouGov have polled Londoners about their favourite Tube Lines, and the DLR is in second-place, with the Overground taking the bronze medal. (Top of the pops is the Jubilee.)

For me, the question of which Tube Line is best is both practical and emotional. How much use to I get out of it? What does it say to me about the city I was born, grew up and live in today?

As far as emotion goes, there are six contenders: the Central, Victoria, Northern, DLR, Piccadilly and District lines. Between them, these are the lines that contain: my school, the flat I grew up in, my first job, first girlfriend, first serious girlfriend, and essentially everywhere I’ve lived for a period of time longer than six months.

The Central Line, of course, cannot be anyone’s favourite line, as it is cramped, smelly and at times hotter than an oven. The warm glow of passing by the place I was born is overridden by the warm haze of travelling on the Central line, and the fear that I may die while doing so. In any case, the emotionally resonant stops are also covered equally well by the District line, which has the advantage of being roomier and serving both my current workplaces (the NS offices and the Palace of Westminster).

The Northern Line, too, has to be immediately eliminated from the running, too, although it’s a harder call. There are a lot of places on it that I have a great deal of affection for – Angel, where I have been going to the cinema for basically my entire life; Warren Street, which is exactly equidistant between one of my best friends and me; and is as a result where I go to watch football more often than not; the stretch of stations from Camden Town to Woodside Park, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager, and each of which has a cherished memory attached.

But it also contains the most irredeemable stretch of south London, from Oval to Balham. South London tends to get a worse rap that it deserves, I expect because it hosts so many fans of Chelsea Football Club and also because it’s an easy gag, but that little set deserves everything it gets. It’s increasingly become a holding pen for people who hate London, but are forced to live here for work or other purposes, and are clearly counting the days until they can move out to some improbable commuter village like Virginia Water or Egham. You know, the kind of people who complain that no-one talks to each other on the Tube and are responsible for killing all of the interesting shops in Covent Garden.

That leaves the real contenders: the District, DLR, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines. For reasons of practicality, the DLR has to bow out here: though I used to take it to work, it simply isn’t useful enough to be the best Tube line. It also only really has two flavours of London – the East End and the city’s banker belt, and the two are in any rate increasingly co-terminous – and the best Tube line has to contain all, or at least a significant chunk of the city’s various flavours.


On that metric, the District Line has a good case to be the definitive Tube Line. It has both flavours of suburbia – posh people who’ve lived on the outskirts for ever; people leaving the inner city for more space or fewer black people. All of the city’s great cultural institutions are within walking distance of a District Line stop. It represents almost every bit of the inner city, and, emotionally speaking, my birthplace, secondary school and a variety of emotional milestones that I prefer not to dwell on here, all took place in parts of the city you can reach on the District Line.

But the problem with the District is also its weakness: it is so broad that it takes ages to get anywhere on it and it is riddled with tourists the year round. It’s a line of last resort – if there is nothing better, take the District Line, and very probably a large book to occupy the time. If there is an alternative, take that, it’ll be quicker.

The Victoria Line has the reverse problem: it is quick and convenient but essentially covers a very small stretch of London. You can’t honestly say that the Victoria Line has all of the city on it.

That might make it seem like the Piccadilly takes the crown by default: faster than the District (just about) but larger than the Victoria. But the Piccadilly is my favourite not because it’s the last line standing but because, to me, it’s the best line of all.

Like the District, it contains essentially every one of London’s forms. It could only be more comprehensive if it had a spur to Lewisham, really, but if you want to “get” London, if you got off at every station of the Piccadilly and walked around for a bit, you’d understand it. You can reach most of the city’s big museums and art galleries, albeit with a slightly longer walk than the District; and the various types of inner and outer London are well-represented. From a sentimental perspective, it, too, ticks off where I grew up, where my football team plays, where I went to school – again, with something of a schlepp compared to the alternative, but still, it works.

And, most magical of all, thanks to the Eurostar station at Kings Cross and the airport at Heathrow, it’s the only Tube Line that can genuinely take you anywhere in the world. You could, provided you have enough money, get on the Piccadilly Line with your passport and decide to go to Hawaii or Paris or wherever you wanted, just like that. (And with a quicker interchange than the luckless visitors who try to change from Monument to Bank.)

And that’s why, whatever the polls may say, the Piccadilly is the best of all possible lines.

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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This article was amended at 1730hrs at request of the author, in an attempt to reduce the grief he was getting for his contention that Chelsea was in south London. 

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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