Are the Tories planning to cut Crossrail 2? And how can they deliver HS2 without it?

Euston station, the scene of the crime. Image: Getty.

At first sight, the transport section of the Conservative manifesto published yesterday looks rather bland compared to the drama elsewhere.

It pledges to continue “putting some £40bn into transport improvements across the United Kingdom over the rest of this decade” and to “continue our programme of strategic national investments, including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the expansion of Heathrow Airport”.

The first response to this is relief. There are several ideas that have been floating around the Conservative Party and affiliated think-tanks for a while which would be less than great – from dropping the new Heathrow runway to the cancellation of the HS2 high-speed north-south rail link or George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project, via the privatisation of infrastructure operator Network Rail, through to the abolition of all rail subsidies and safety regulations.

Transport is a sector that’s all too likely to experience major reorganisations, funding and scope changes halfway through major projects based on political whims. Given the change in government focus after the Brexit vote, more radical changes to transport policy could have been on the cards.

The manifesto pledges greater government involvement in private-sector areas such as energy and banking, so it’s perhaps not surprising to see Network Rail privatisation disappearing from the picture. A sell-off would go against Theresa May’s desire to appeal to former Labour and UKIP voters as a break from the Cameron government’s City of London establishment.

Indeed, the one major project that does appear to have got the axe is a London one. The Crossrail 2 project, providing a new heavy-rail line between north-east and south-west London – which was included in the 2015 Conservative manifesto – isn’t mentioned at all this time round.

Take a look at what you could have won.

The Department for Transport was scheduled to report on the business case for the program that Transport for London has created by the end of this month, but has now delayed any decision till after the election. So things are looking shaky for the project’s future, despite its strong backing from the Mayor and TfL.

The obvious question is why. Crossrail 2 is one of the highest benefit/cost ratio (BCR) schemes going in the UK, with a BCR of 1:2.7, compared to about 1:1.8 for HS2 and about 1:2 for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail 1) that’s currently being completed. (The Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme hasn’t even calculated one.)


Partly this is because of the nature of BCRs. Transport investment in London always shows up more productive in BCR terms than transport investment in the rest of the UK, because it’s a bigger, denser city containing more people who earn more money than people anywhere else. It’s also the only place in the country where all transport networks continuously run at or above capacity.

As a result, it’s easy to show how capacity enhancement projects will have benefits, because you can see exactly who will use them and what they’ll use them for. Regeneration and massive change projects require much more of a wing and a prayer outlook – and while “If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, it’s hard to factor into economic appraisals.

So if the government wants to move away from its predecessor’s focus on London, it pretty much has to neglect high BCR London projects in favour of lower or incalculable BCR projects elsewhere – and accept the economic hit that will ensue if this means further crowding on the capital’s commuter lines.

There’s one problem with this for Crossrail 2, though. The current plans for HS2 – which have gone through parliament and detailed design, and are almost ready to start – rely on the new commuter line. The terminus for HS2 will be at Euston, which is on the north side of central London. It’s an hour’s walk from Euston to Westminster or to London Bridge, and the three tube lines connecting Euston directly with everywhere southwards are already well over capacity.

The biggest economic case for HS2, national showing-off aside, is that commuter routes to the north of London are saturated. Moving high-speed trains to a new line allows more commuter trains to run on existing lines – both by swapping them, and by improving the line’s capacity. (When all trains on a track go at the same speed, there’s room for more trains than there is if fast ones keep catching up with slow ones.) This increases the number of people who can be moved from northern suburbia into London.

But without Crossrail 2, everyone who arrives into Euston will then find it hard to get anywhere else. The commuters who HS2 has made room for will be using up the last vestiges of space on the Victoria Line; and the time benefits of the new line will seem irrelevant when you have to queue for just as long before you can get on the Tube.

Is this an unintended consequence that the Conservatives haven’t thought through? Is it an excuse to cancel HS2 after the election? Is the apparent disappearance of Crossrail 2 actually just a total red herring, or even an attempt to play hardball with TfL over funding splits? We’ll see – but the plans as they appear now just don’t seem to make sense.

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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.