The Southern Rail mess isn’t a privatisation failure – it’s a return to the 1970s

A helpful and informative sign at East Dulwich this morning. Image: Getty.

London’s Southern Railway has been dominating the headlines all summer, due to its sheer awfulness. But the underlying dispute isn’t a failure of privatisation: it’s a fight between unions and managers, directed by Conservative politicians, about how to reform a nationalised industry. This may sound familiar to older readers.

On your journeys to work this summer, particularly if being cooked at 32C on the Central Line, you can at least take solace that some commuters have it worse than you. It’s impossible to open a newspaper without reading of the woes of Southern Railway, which operates trains out of London Bridge and Victoria to outer London, Sussex and Surrey.

Politicians including Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, and Conservative backbenchers on the route, have called for the service to be renationalised, stripped of its franchise, or given to Transport for London to manage. CityMetric even called for the latter here.

There’s one small problem: none of these will help.

The most important thing to know about Southern Railway is that it doesn’t actually exist. It used to, from 2001 up until July 2015. Then, it was a fairly standard UK rail franchise. (We’ve talked about those, too.) In summary: the company paid the Department for Transport money for the right to operate trains, collect fares, and take the profits.

But this changed in 2015. Instead of taking new bids when this contract ran out, the DfT merged a whole bunch of services into a single new tender. The new Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise was the largest in the UK in terms of passengers, trains and employees.

And, importantly, it is not a franchise like Southern was.

Instead of auctioning off the right to run trains and collect fares, the new tender was for a service delivery contract. The operator must meet specifications laid down by the DfT, hand over fares to the DfT, and collect a service fee from the DfT in exchange.

There’s nothing wrong with this model. It works well for London Overground and London Buses. And there was a good reason to bring it in: the Thameslink Programme will be finished during the franchise’s term, and many routes that used to terminate at London Bridge or Kings Cross will shift to the cross-London Thameslink route. This is easier to manage if you don’t have to worry about multiple companies allocating profits, costs and delays between themselves.

Several companies bid for the new contract, with Govia Thameslink Railway the winner. GTR doesn’t use its own brand, instead running trains under their old names – including Southern.

It’s these major changes in how the franchise is structured which have created the commuter woes. Some of them can be put down to the massive upheaval you’d expect from a major construction project – one that that both directly gets in the way of services, and involves changing long-established routes, terminuses and timetables.

But there’s a bigger upheaval going on, and to understand that, you need to go back in time.


GTR’s routes have mostly been operating for over a century, and their workers were pioneers in the UK’s union movement. Railwaymen fought the many companies that owned the railways for decent working conditions and pay.

But these were never standardised nationally. Even under British Rail, the great effort of negotiating national standards and practices was a lower priority than simple survival. Instead, changes to create a workforce that suited a modern railway were negotiated piecemeal as upgrades took place, depending on managers’ preferences; and money was made available to sweeten the pill of reduced staffing or more variable hours.

When BR built the original Thameslink route in the 1980s, it shifted its trains to driver-only-operation, because train guards’ role in opening doors and dealing with breakdowns was now redundant. As weekend services grew across British Rail's network, driver contracts on some routes were shifted to a seven-day roster, so that they no longer relied on voluntary overtime. But on most of the network, including what is now Southern, this didn’t happen – and privatisation further reduced the incentive for difficult changes.  

This becomes a big problem when routes with different practices and contracts get merged into one. Thameslink drivers operate the doors; Southern mainline drivers don’t operate the doors. Southern mainline trains always carry guards, while Thameslink trains don’t. Given that these will soon be the same rolling stock, operating the same services, this situation is ridiculous and needs to be resolved.

Now, there’s a long-established model for successfully bringing about changes in working practices, which involves managers and unions working together to come up with efficient solutions that share out the benefits of change. It’s called Germany. There’s also a long-established model for guaranteeing that working practice changes are a disaster, which involves hostile press briefings, strike threats, and refusal to compromise on money on the one side or efficiencies on the other. It’s called 1970s Britain.

We know that the Germany model works and that the 1970s model doesn’t. But we also know that there’s a huge attachment to union-bashing and refusing to settle among Conservative politicians. Who control the DfT. Which – I said this would be important – gets to tell GTR what to do. So Conservative politicians who hate unions ultimately control negotiations with Southern’s staff.

The direct strike action this has provoked would be bad enough if Southern ran a seven-day roster, but it doesn’t: it’s entirely dependent on driver goodwill for its Sunday service, and is understaffed enough that it’s partially dependent on volunteer overtime and swaps for the rest of the week.

There’s only one thing that can fix Southern in the short term, and it’s a complete change in attitude from the people in charge of the government. Who, if you’ve not been paying attention, have just changed.

So, come on Theresa May – are you going to meet the unions and end the painful stalemate your predecessor created? Or are you going to drag this out into a pyrrhic victory where everyone loses, like the miner’s strike your predecessor-minus-a-few created?

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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