Britain is on course to make 630,000 old people homeless, but at least we’re not building flats without parking

The scene of the crime. Image: Sunil060902/Wikimedia Commons.

Back in the ‘90s, the government dealt with the collapse of the private pension system by encouraging the baby boomer generation to invest their wealth in buy-to-let property. As solutions to public policy problems go, this one was a bit like dealing with a blocked toilet by crapping on next door’s lawn, and it always seemed inevitable that it would come back to haunt someone – albeit not the people whose problems it was set up to solve.

And lo, it came to pass that the government launched an inquiry into what will happen when millennials who have neither decent pensions nor home ownership retire, and lo, the all-party parliamentary group on housing and care for older people did conclude that the young people are well stuffed. From today’s Guardian:

People’s incomes typically halve after retirement. Those in the private rented sector who pay 40 per cent of their earnings in rent could be forced to spend up to 80 per cent of their income on rent in retirement.

Or to put it another way: the rent is too damn high. Remarkably, it gets worse:

If rents rise at the same rate as earnings, the inquiry found that 52 per cent of pensioners in the private rental sector will be paying more than 40 per cent of their income on rent by 2038. This will mean that at least 630,000 millennials are unable to afford their rent.

(...)

“The number of households in the private rented sector headed by someone aged over 64 will more than treble over the next 25 to 30 years,” said Richard Best, the chair of the group. “But unless at least 21,000 suitable homes are built a year, there will be nowhere affordable for them to live. The consequence is bound to be homelessness for some.”

In other words, a policy intended to protect retirement for one generation may well have helped to completely destroy it for the next. Isn’t that wizard?

But that’s fine – we just need to build more houses, right? Who could possibly object to that?

To find out, let us turn to the pages of the Barnet & Potters Bar Times, which reported this week on the demise of a plan to build 86 affordable homes right next to Woodside Park tube station:

Developer Pocket Living wanted to build two blocks of five-storey flats on land to the south of Woodside Park underground station in Chipping Barnet.

All 86 of the one-bedroom flats would have been classed as affordable, and residents would have had access to roof terraces and cycle parking.

Now, I have some questions about micro-home developers like Pocket: the homes they build, while functional, are ridiculously tiny, while the prices they charge for those homes are generally not. Nonetheless, densifying the suburbs is going to be a key part of any solution to the housing supply crisis, and this feels a lot like what that densification should look like: a lot of homes on a small site right next to public transport links. This is, basically, a good thing.

And what happened?

...the council received 19 letters objecting to the development, which did not include any car parking spaces and would have involved building next to locally listed St Barnabas Church.

Among the opponents was MP for Chipping Barnet Theresa Villiers, who warned about the lack of parking and claimed the flats would be out of character with their surroundings.

Let’s say that again: the council of London’s most populous borough rejected plans for 86 new homes, with cycle parking and right next to a tube station, on the grounds that it didn’t have enough parking for the cars its residents probably wouldn’t have.

At a certain point, you start to wonder whether people like Theresa Villiers MP actually want to build any homes at all.

Laurie Williams, a Labour councillor for East Barnet, told the paper that the development was

“...an excellent opportunity for the borough to say to people with a limited income, ‘you are welcome in this borough’....If we’re saying to that sort of person, ‘we don’t want you in Barnet’, I think that is a completely alien message to send out.”

But it isn’t, is it? Alien would suggest it was strange and unfamiliar. This is neither of those things. “You aren’t rich enough to live here” is a message that poorer, younger people have been hearing with increasing frequency in ever larger swathes of the country for a decade or more.

There’s a rarely spoken assumption that underlies a lot of politicians’ thinking on the housing crisis for the last few years now: that this is just a young people’s problem, and young people don’t vote. There’s no point bringing house prices down, because it’s a vote loser; there’s no point doing anything for renters, because they’ll all become owners soon enough, and so they’ll never thank you for it.


The two stories quoted above between them highlight quite how stupid this strategy has been. One of the residents quoted in the Barnet & Potters Bar Times in favour of the plans is 39 years old and earns more than £35,000 – a demographic that, for most of the last half century, would scream “homeowner”. Yet she doesn’t own a home, and is talking of moving out of the area because she has no prospect of doing so. It’s no longer just the young being denied secure housing: as the APPG report shows, it’s increasingly going to be the old, too.

I can think of a few plausible solutions to this mess. Reform planning to make it easier to build homes in the places, like Barnet, where people want to live. Allow local authorities to build council houses in vast numbers once again, so that those of limited resources – like poorer retired people – can still access secure housing. Or raise the retirement age so far it effectively abolishes retirement.

On the basis of the last few years of government policy, which of those feels most plausible to you right now?

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

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.