“Beware of politicians bearing housing stats”: unpicking new build numbers

Some houses. Image: Getty.

Well, it’s very exciting that the government has decided we need to build more houses, because before yesterday I don’t think anyone had suggested that as a solution to the housing crisis. One consequence is that we’re almost certainly going to see more politicians arguing about how many houses have actually been built.

It’s an argument that’s been raging in London for years, as various mayors and mayoral candidates try to puff up/slap down the figures. Even without the national conversation it’s definitely something that will happen at the next metro mayoral elections, too. (Something to look forward to, Tees Valley!)

So here’s a quick, and absolutely not boring, guide to unpicking housing statistics. Yay!

Purely because it’s handy and we already have a lot of figures to hand, I’m going to use a current attack line from the London Conservatives. (Be aware that housebuilding stats-twisting comes in all party shapes and colours.) Presenting Assembly Member Gareth Bacon talking about how much affordable homebuilding Boris Johnson had overseen while mayor:

“Boris Johnson averaged 10,436 affordable starts per year in his 8 years in office. As of yesterday Sadiq Khan had started 8,935 in 2016/17 and 2,221 in 2017/18.”

There’s an immediate problem here, with Bacon comparing Johnson’s average over eight years with Khan’s early years total. Housebuilding, particularly housebuilding subsidised by the state, goes in cycles that are dictated by funding. At the start of the cycle you don’t get much happening because the money is only just starting to come in. At the end of the cycle you tend to get a load of new homes.

To show just how wildly year-on-year construction can swing, in 2011-12 there were 4,511 affordable homes started in London using funding from City Hall. That’s less than the 4,654 homes started in 2017-18 that the Tories are now saying isn’t good enough. But you can’t cherry pick figures like that because it’s an unfair reflection of a particular stage of the cycle.

Aren’t we at the end of a cycle now, though? Yes, but the cycles have got a bit out of sync lately. Here’s what the funding from central government for affordable homebuilding in all of England has been over the last decade:

  • 2008-2011: £8.4bn National Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2011-2015: £4.5bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2015-18: £1.7bn Affordable Homes Programme
  • 2016-2021: £4.7bn Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme

(The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the amounts went down after 2011. This is how we ended up with the ludicrous policy that homes can be rented out at up to 80 per cent of market rate and still be called ‘affordable’: to make up the funding shortfall, housing associations and other builders had to charge more rent.)

London now has its own £3.15bn fund to spend, through the Homes for Londoners fund. That covers 2016-21, although the money didn’t come in until 2016 was well underway.

This could look like there’s lots of different funds sloshing money into housebuilding; but if you look at the figures, 12,473 homes were started in London between 2015-17 under the 2015-18 funding cycle, and then the money seems to dry up, because just 448 were started (so far) under that same funding scheme in 2017-18.

Funding for homes in 2017-18 has switched to the Homes for Londoners coffers. But the thing is, you don’t get new funding on day one and break ground on 50,000 new homes the following week. It takes time – for developers to apply for funding under different rules, those applications to be assessed, plans to be drawn up, permissions to be sought, blah blah blah.


Funding is complicated, is what I’m saying here.

And if you want to know just how crackers housebuilding stats get, City Hall tells me they expect to report 12,500 affordable home starts by the end of this financial year. Which would mean another 8,000 starts in the next month.

In short, look very carefully at anyone comparing figures on housebuilding because it is almost always more complicated that it seems. You can’t compare an entire term in office to a partial term because there are cyclical swings that take years to pan out. And you definitely can’t compare years that were flush with funding to years of austerity. Things to bear in mind when the opposition comes for Andy Street in 2021, or when Labour trumpets its London achievements in 2020.

But the main point to remember when talking about housebuilding numbers is: it’s a distraction. The really important thing is not pure numbers. It’s what kind of homes are being built. In the same way that loads of luxury flats in hip urban centres are no good to your average family, churning out a load of one bedroom flats for rent at 80 per cent of the market rate is different to funding fewer large family homes at social rent.

In London (again, because we have the stats), between 2008 and 2011, there were 29,401 homes started at social rent. With new rules in 2011 introducing the ‘affordable rent’ of up to 80 per cent of market rent, that drops right off and just 5,977 homes at social rent levels have been built in the years since. Some 27,207 ‘affordable rent’ homes were begun since 2011 – but the people living in them will have a markedly different experience.

Sadiq Khan is introducing three new types of tenure aimed at making housing more affordable. When an election comes round, that’s the kind of measure we should be looking at, whether we’re talking London, Manchester, Cambridge or nationally. As with Greeks and gifts, beware of politicians bearing housing stats.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.