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

“ 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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Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”

Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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