“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.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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