Where are the right places for England's new homes?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

A housing white paper is due in the New Year, one which communities secretary Sajid Javid promises will get “more of the right homes built in the right places”. But where are the right places?

As we know, the housing shortage is not felt equally everywhere. Regional price growth has varied enormously since the crash. But even within regions there are large differences between areas. Nor can these problems be expressed purely in terms of house prices, either, because prices are determined as much by economic demand and speculation as anything else.

To try to establish a sense of the under-supply of new housing at a local level, we compared last year’s output against expected household growth, which is what you might say – not without a few caveats, admittedly – is the rate at which new homes are thought to be needed.

Nationally, the net supply of housing in 2015-16 was about 90 per cent of the annual household growth rate that is projected by government statisticians for the period 2019-39. But that national average disguises very large variations between areas that are producing more than enough homes, and others that are falling a long way short.

Click to expand.

Worse, those areas that are expected to grow most rapidly over the next 25 years are, on the whole, already performing least well against their household formation projections. London, which taken as a whole is the fastest-growing area of the country, had new homes equivalent to only 55 per cent of its long-term household growth rate. Only three boroughs (if you include the City of London; not technically a borough and tiny in population terms) built above that rate.

The next 30 fastest growing areas of the country after London fared similarly: only five were keeping up with their household formation projections, and 21 were not even doing as well as the national average of 90 per cent. London plus the next 30 areas that are expected to see the most household growth over the next 25 years – collectively accounting for 48 per cent of it – supplied just 36 per cent of new housing last year.

This was not confined to the South-East, either, but was an issue in places that are the focus of economic growth strategies, such as Greater Manchester (Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan), which supplied new homes equivalent to 68 per cent of its long-term growth rate. The West Midlands (Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton) managed just a little bit more, at 71 per cent.


This raises a variety of issues. The most obvious one, perhaps, is how do we ensure those areas with an under-supply build more homes? This is a many-faceted problem, of course, probably requiring local investigation, although quite a few people have justifiably pointed out a strong correlation between the red patches on this map – denoting a shortfall in housing – and the green belt.

But it also raises important questions about whether those areas that are failing so badly to keep up with household growth will ever keep up with it – and whether the answer doesn’t lie in trying to draw off demand to other areas.

In some case this might require only local movement. There are examples already in, say, Oxfordshire, which has a county-wide surplus of homes measured against household formation, despite a deficit in Oxford itself. This kind of thing lies at the heart of the planning system in the “duty to cooperate”, in which local authorities are meant to share the burden of household growth across boundaries.

But there are limits to this, as can be seen in London and the broad swathes of the South-East in which there are hardly any areas that are keeping up with their own household growth, never mind their neighbours’ too.

And so it may also require a degree of regional rebalancing, from London and the South-East in particular and towards some of those areas that are coping better already with household growth. This may happen naturally to some extent, as a result of these very pressures and their impact on house prices. But for demand to shift on a bigger, more meaningful scale would require substantial regional jobs growth, and the transport infrastructure to support it.

Where are “the right places” for new homes, then? Perhaps the more important question is: where do we want them to be?

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and tweets @danielbentley. His briefing paper “Housing supply and household growth, national and local” was published this week.

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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:

 ​

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.