No, crazy house price increases are not purely a London phenomenon

No chance. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

So, let’s break the habit of a lifetime and talk about housing.

While it’s true Britain has a national housing crisis, it’s also true that we tend to talk about it from the viewpoint of London and the South East (where the problem is one of insanely high prices and the near impossibility of getting onto the ladder) than from that of other parts of the country facing other problems (quality, insecurity and so forth). Not all housing crises are created equal.

And yet: we can this revisionism too far. Over the last 15 years, every city in Great Britain has seen substantial increases in prices. Look:

The smallest increase between 2003 and 2017 came in Sunderland, and even that was over 40 per cent. In other words, for wages to have kept up with house prices, they would have to increase by an average of 2.4 per cent a year – and that’s in the city where prices have increased least.

That map shows a lot of cities, though, so – for the purposes of analysing broader trends – let’s restrict ourselves to the big guys. The next graph shows house prices change in 12 of Britain’s major cities (the 10 Core Cities, plus the capitals of London and Edinburgh) between 2003 and 2017. Let’s find out what the data tells us.

The trends are still a bit difficult to spot, to be honest – both prices in London, and the rate at which they’ve increased, are so much higher than in the other cities that it renders the rest of the graph pretty unreadable.

 

So let’s simplify things. Instead of looking at absolute prices, let’s look at how they’ve changed.

This next graph shows mean house prices as a function of their 2003 value: if the average home in a city was worth £150,000 in 2003, but £300,000 in 2017, then on the latter it’ll show up as “2.0”. That should make it easier to spot trends.

Two things instantly jump out at me about London. One is that – entirely unshockingly – the increase in house prices in the capital has been quite ludicrous. By 2017, they were nearly two and a half times higher than they were in 2003, when our data series starts – and that was already in the middle of a boom.

But another is that – while prices in London have increased steadily – it’s only since the crash that it’s really shot out ahead of the pack. Around 2009, as prices in most other cities start to drift, those in London continue to soar. That, I would guess, reflects both the city’s resilience after the crash, and the fact that over the last 10 years property in major world cities has become a sort of reserve currency for the global rich.

London’s trajectory means the rest of the graph is still a bit hard to read, so let’s do this again without it:

Bristol and Manchester are vying for the top spot in 2017: prices in both cities have nearly doubled.

But the two have followed very different paths. Prices in Manchester increased fairly steadily on either side of the Great Recession, suggesting the rises are a function of the city’s long-running regeneration. In Bristol, though, the increases started much slower, before shooting up from about 2013. My suspicion is this is escapees from London, looking for more space.


Lower down the table, things are much of a muchness, with increases moving in a what looks suspiciously like a pack: rapid increases from 2003-2007, a wobble until about 2012, followed by slower increases since. But three cities defy this pattern at least slightly.

One is Liverpool which, as I’ve noted several times in this slot of late, experienced a bit of a boom in the run up to its year as European Capital of Culture, but has struggled somewhat since the crash: that seems to be reflected in its house prices. Those in Newcastle has seen a similar trajectory, but without the dramatic boom.

And then there’s Nottingham, which has seen the smallest increase in prices since 2003, but where prices have increased rather faster since 2013. I don’t know much about Nottingham, in all honesty, so am struggling to explain this. Please do write in.

It’s difficult to come up with a coherent conclusion to all this, in all honesty, so I’m going to settle for:

  1. No, the house price crisis – let alone the broader housing crisis – Is not purely a London phenomenon; and
  2.  London house prices, eh? Bloody hell.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.