This is how stations can be at the heart of urban housing supply

Birmingham New Street. Image: National Rail.

The managing director of Network Rail Property on how the railways can help solve Britain’s housing crisis.

Coping with the housing demands of an ever-growing population looms large as one of the greatest challenges facing Britain. But housing is far from the only pressure point: population growth affects a huge variety of industries. From healthcare to farming, transport to infrastructure, few sectors are left untouched by the need to accommodate an increasing number of people.

Nowhere is the challenge more pressing than in our cities. As I said during my recent keynote speech to the UK Rail Station Development and Regeneration Conference, our growing population will continue to move towards our urban centres over the next decade, with 92 per cent of Britain’s population expected to live in cities by 2030.

Our rail stations will, of course, bear a significant brunt of this rise. In 2016-17, approximately 1.7bn people travelled by train. But this number is expected to double in the next 25 years to 3.5bn, with a huge amount of these journeys involving stations within the UK’s urban centres.

In order to manage this seismic societal shift, it goes without saying , the UK rail industry needs to invest in increasing its capacity. Our Railway Upgrade Plan which began in 2014 is our response to this growth, delivering longer, faster, more frequent trains; better, more reliable infrastructure; and better facilities for passengers, especially at stations. The projects include major schemes, such as Crossrail, as well as targeted local improvements for communities across Britain.

But we can do more; Britain’s stations can play a huge role in alleviating the broader challenges of population growth and urbanisation. With so much of the population now motivated to live in urban centres and many no longer seeing a need for car ownership it’s right to think that our future housing developments should have new or regenerated stations at their core.


Such stations have the opportunity to continue the historical role they played in the urbanisation of Britain 200 years ago. With their ability to act as a catalyst to facilitate housing, jobs, and economic growth, they play a key role in attracting people to an area and offering the key economic and social benefits that people desire.

The work that Network Rail has already undertaken in Birmingham, London and Reading shows the potential stations have to act as an unlocker, rather than a blocker, for development in the surrounding area. At King’s Cross in London, 67 acres of brownfield land is being developed into offices, retail and 2,000 homes. In Birmingham, the New Street Development has acted as the catalyst for a reported £2bn of regeneration to the south of the city centre.

Local authorities and developers are catching on to this. In Enfield we’re working with the Council and developers to deliver a brand new railway station for the £6bn Meridian Water project; which will create 10,000 homes, and our new station in Beaulieu, Essex, will provide a focal point for the development of 3,600 new homes. Likewise the new Cambridge North station, which opened this year, provides the opportunity to regenerate the surrounding land to provide over 900 homes.

However, it is not only the changes at our stations that support communities and the economy; we are in the midst of a railway property renaissance with many of our properties, particularly railway arches, providing space to support vibrant communities.

Once known for being places for only garages and light industry they are being transformed into spaces for restaurants, climbing walls, microbreweries and a host of other vibrant and exciting activities. They provide vital jobs and create hubs of activity which can set or support the tone and feel of entire areas. We are experiencing a period of sustained regeneration of these unique spaces, providing affordable space for small and independent businesses to operate in urban areas, playing a key role in local communities.

London Kings Cross. Image: National Rail.

Stations themselves are generally central to urban areas. Much coveted by those who value convenient transport connections, and often adjacent to other desirable amenities, they are a natural choice for housing developments, creating places for people to live, work and play.

These developments are happening – but we need more investment in station regeneration of this kind if they are to play a full role in supporting the nation’s growth. And we should be ambitious; the search for new homes requires innovative solutions.

At Clapham Junction and East Croydon we are exploring options with decking over the stations to create a platform for further new development. This kind of over site development allows us to take full advantage of the draw of stations and maximise the space we have for new homes. It creates new land in inner city locations where there is the highest demand.

Moreover, it can create new places based on high standards of urban design and place making that connects communities which historically have been severed by the railway. We need to embrace these ambitious projects if we are to meet the needs of our growing population and enhance the urban environment.

We also need to be creative about the way we fund such projects. Network Rail has always sought to deliver land for new housing, whether it be through our own investment or with our partners. We have a plan in place to deliver land for 12,000 homes by 2020, and have already delivered successful housing schemes at Walthamstow, Epsom and West Hampstead to name but a few.

In addition we are constantly seeking ‘rail + property’ opportunities: developing the areas in, around and above rail stations to help turn previously underused land into much-needed housing. Indeed, the importance of stations has also been recognised in the government’s Housing White Paper, which understands that they are key anchors for the next generation of urban housing developments.

It is a track record that we are proud of, but there’s still much more that can be done. Investment in the land that stations sit on is just part of their potential role in future-proofing the UK’s cities. The ways in which passengers interact with stations is changing rapidly, with stations large and small and their surrounding areas increasingly becoming the hubs of modern communities – places to eat, meet and shop as well as travel. With the right investment and vision, stations can become a focal-point for placemaking programmes, turning these places into the go-to areas in the local community and providing the catalyst for further regeneration and economic growth.

It is happening already, but we need to build on the successes across the 2,500 railway stations owned by Network Rail and keep up the momentum. Stations’ role in placemaking should not be viewed as an optional extra or a quirky alternative to our urbanisation challenge – it is a fundamental pillar in our growth strategy, and is vital to ensure our cities are ready to embrace what is coming down the track.

David Biggs is managing director of Network Rail Property.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.