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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.