To create housing for the many not the few, we should reform Britain’s land market

Jeremy Corbyn points at a house. Image: Getty.

Housing policy was centre stage last week when Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour party’s Green Paper on social housing. With commitments to build 100,000 affordable homes a year and introduce a new definition of affordable housing, the party’s plans certainly don’t lack ambition.

These ambitious commitments are long overdue. Housing supply has not met housing need for decades with house price growth far exceeding wage growth for years. There are over a million families on the waiting list for social housing, and rough sleeping has increased by 169 per cent since 2010. The list goes on.

At the heart of the housing crisis is a set of political choices which have rarefied the concept of housing as an asset rather than a place to call home. Central to this process has been the marginalisation of the role of the state in the housing market.

Since the Second World War, we have only ever met housing need with a significant contribution from the public sector. Between 1948 and 1978, local authorities built an average of 90,000 council homes a year, but by the 1990s it was next to nothing. Housing associations have made a growing contribution – but they’ve not been able to fill the gap. Research by IPPR last year showed that 92 per cent of local authorities were failing to build the number of affordable homes their areas needed.

Concerted action is needed, and the role of the state is crucial. It should begin with much greater investment in affordable housing and the freeing of councils to build the homes their communities need. Arbitrary rules introduced by the current government prevent councils from borrowing prudently against future rental streams to build council homes: these should be scrapped as Labour recommended.

The justification for these limits is that it will add to Public Sector Net Debt (PSND) the UK’s measure of government debt. The main international measure of net debt – the General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) – excludes debts of public corporations involved in such activities. We should adopt the international standards, and free ourselves up to allow greater investment in housing – just as our global competitors do.


Investing to build more affordable homes is critical, but ensuring they are affordable in the first place is just as important. That’s why Labour’s proposal to scrap the current definition of affordable housing is vital. Under the current definition, ‘affordability’ is linked to prices, not wages. As a result, research by IPPR has found that a couple with a child on low incomes, one working full-time and the other part-time, would find many ‘affordable’ homes unaffordable. In places like London the problem is even more acute. We must return to an affordable housing measure that is linked to incomes, not market prices.

Perhaps the most crucial, and under reported, aspect of Labour’s plans was a small section on an “English Sovereign Land Trust” which will allow local authorities to buy land at cheaper prices to build affordable homes.

It is here, through intervention in the land market, that the state could have the biggest impact – not to just build more affordable homes, but to make all new homes built more affordable. The price of land has risen exorbitantly over the past few decades, and in high demand areas is the most significant cost of building a home. Yet the increases in the value of the land often has very little to do with the actions of a landowner and everything to do with the awarding of planning permission by a local council on behalf of their local community.

Under our current system we have few mechanisms to capture that value effectively for the community, with the majority of it going to the landowner or developer. Moreover, we rely on private developers and land speculators to bring this land to market, meaning they carry all the risk but also get most of the reward.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In other countries they have far more effective ways of dealing with these issues, either by using more effective property and land taxes which help capture land value increases, or through planning mechanisms which reduce the cost of land for development, or help capture the land value for the community.

Labour’s green paper yesterday was a huge stride forward in setting out substantive proposals to tackle the housing crisis. But on land reform, there is scope to be bolder and go further to ensure that affordable housing really is available ‘for the many’, rather than the preserve of the few.

Luke Murphy is associate director for the environment, housing and infrastructure at the IPPR.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.