Southern Railway’s strike tweet highlights the new, nasty era we’re living in

Another happy day on Southern. Image: Getty.

It’s awful business practice to slate your staff to your customers – so why is the already-beleaguered Southern Railway doing exactly that? The short version is, it’s part of a fluffy Blair-era private-public partnership company whose business model is obsolete in today’s nastier world – it just hasn’t realised it yet.  

On top of the problems with its service that has led to cuts and delays all year, the firm is also the target of a strike by RMT union conductors this week. On social media, Southern decided this would be a good response:

You can click through the tweet to read the reactions, but suffice it to say that they were less than positive. If you're in a customer-facing industry and you bash your staff to your customers, whatever the context, you end up looking at best incompetent, and at worst treacherous and incompetent. So what's going on? 

I wrote about the background to this dispute here in August, and not much has changed. Quick précis: the model of train operation where the guard is in charge of the doors and sounds the starting bell (as distinct from being a person on board who makes sure passengers are safe, sells tickets and helps evacuate in an emergency) has been obsolete for decades. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Southern-branded trains, already has driver-only operation on some of its routes; it's trying to introduce it on more; and RMT conductors are going on strike because they disapprove, citing a risk to passenger safety.

The safety claims don't have any real merit. Swathes of London’s network are already driver-operated, as is the Underground; these have no difference in safety record from areas where guards operate the doors. The RMT know this, and are pretending a dispute which is about protecting their members' jobs and conditions, is about protecting the public.

Even though rail is a very safe transport mode, and UK railways among the world’s safest, the fear of a train crash haunts public imaginations (not helped by incidents in countries that use technology that was removed decades ago in Britain, such as Italy and the USA). We’re bad at assessing risk versus cost, especially when rare failures are horrific. Many people are unhappy about unions standing up for their members’ pay and conditions – so public safety is an understandable path for the RMT to tread despite the total absence of evidence.

That doesn't explain Southern's response, though. As a company in a heavily unionised industry, you can be a hard-arsed union basher like Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s, or you can work with the union and be liked by your customers. You can’t do both, and saying “poor me” when you've allowed a strike to happen doesn't cut it.

To understand why the response has gone wrong, you need to understand the status of the GTR business. Although it's operated under contract by a private company, it doesn’t make commercial decisions and keep fare-box profits like Virgin Trains. GTR is paid a fixed operating fee by the Department for Transport (DfT), and it does exactly what the department tells it to do.

Rail frontline staff costs have risen (and strikes fallen) in the 20 years since privatisation. That’s because commercial franchisees are incentivised to meet staff demands rather than lose revenues and attract penalty payments. This isn’t the biggest driver of increased costs on the railway, but it is still a significant one.

The new minister in charge at the DfT is far-right attack dog Chris Grayling. At the time GTR's contract was signed, the minister was Patrick McLoughlin, an ex-miner who worked throughout the 1984 strike. Their attitude to staff costs and the merits of unions is, well, not hard to guess.


So, how does this fit with the Southern tweet?

GTR signed up to do what they were told, and they're being told to be bastards. There are outsourcing companies who specialise in this job; most obviously G4S and Serco, who've seldom met a jail or a migrant detention centre they wouldn't take on for a fee.

But that isn't how UK train operating companies have worked since privatisation – they're rooted in Richard Branson and Tony Blair's world of post-ideology capitalism, where everyone smiles and there's enough money going around to grease everyone’s palms. Southern was run as a traditional franchise by Govia before GTR was created, so its corporate culture (white collar types who're obliged to believe in brand values, rather than skilled union types who just drive trains) reflects that world.

In this context, Southern's tweet – some marketers not understanding why the RMT has to be so horrible, when they're only doing what the government has told them to do – sums up the change in era. The Blairite fluffy model is dead, replaced by savage cuts and Thatcherite union battles.

The government knows we're in a newer, nastier era. The RMT knows it, and the people who responded angrily to Southern's tweet know it. The folks at Southern probably need to learn it, quick-sharp.

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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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