In France, housing policies are creating vast numbers of empty cities

The Tour de l'Europe, Mulhouse, is a quarter empty. Image: Rh-67/Wikimedia Commons.

The continuous need for more housing is one of the few things most French politicians seem to be able to agree on. Both the Socialist Party and the centre right UMP argue that France needs to build at least 500,000 new homes every year.

That quota is never quite reached, but the idea still remains universally popular. After all, France is one of the EU countries that has traditionally built the most houses. In 2013, it built 5 per 1,000 people, compared to only 2.3 on this side of the Channel. This has been driven by a series of financial incentives – mostly centred around tax breaks – created both by the government of President Hollande, and by the Sarkozy administration which preceded it.

But this commitment to housebuilding has created a whole new problem. By encouraging the housing sector to build across the entire country, the government is creating vast numbers of empty cities.

Last week, an investigation carried out by Le Monde revealed that 7.8 per cent of all homes are currently empty, up from 6.3 per cent ten years ago. The problem is especially pronounced in 42 towns of over 8,500 dwellings, of which at least 12 per cent are unoccupied.

The most extreme example is Vichy, in the centre of France, where 22 per cent of homes – 4,700 of them – are currently empty. The town has become an affordable housing dream, as any request for council housing is filled in within two weeks, Le Monde notes, with claimants being offered “newly renovated flats on the lakefront”.

Nonetheless, the town's officials complain that they are being forced to build even more social housing this year – homes they absolutely do not need. Under current rules, French towns are required to have at least 20 cent social homes. Vichy only has 15 per cent.

Despite this building spree, housing in France has become increasingly unaffordable over the past 15 years, as house prices have doubled, and rents have increased by more than half. Over the same period of time, wages have gone up by just 30 per cent.

French housing is now some of the most expensive in Europe, just behind the UK. In 2015, a 70m2 flat would cost you around 7.9 times the average wage. In the UK, it's 8.5.

The problem is especially obvious in Mulhouse, a middle-sized town by the German and Swiss borders. The 37-storey high “Tour de l'Europe”, built in the 1970s, and one of Eastern France's most famous buildings, stands worryingly empty. About a quarter of the tower – around 50 flats – is now unoccupied. The emptiness has been blamed on rent and utilities prices, which are deemed to high for many to afford.

The Abbe-Pierre Foundation, which campaigns against precarious housing and social exclusion, released some more worrying figures earlier this month. Its researchers found that 3.5m French people are currently in precarious housing, including 2.7m who it described as in an “especially difficult” situation. In the past year, what's more, 1.8m people asked for affordable housing, but only 467,000 homes were allocated.

In other words, simply building more homes is an overly simplistic response to a complicated problem. For one thing, the state hasn't been building in the right places. Because demand is unevenly spread, some towns are bursting at the seams, while others are struggling to fill their existing buildings.

Nor have state subsidies been targeting the right homes. Most French help-to-buy schemes are focused on newly built housing; but even without such schemes, it often remains cheaper to buy pre-existing dwellings.

If you're struggling to get onto the French property ladder, an empty home in the wrong town, or a subsidy for one you can't afford, won't do that much to help you. It's not enough to build more houses: you need to think about who you're building those homes for.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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