The Right To Buy is now the biggest threat to the Right To Buy, argues LGA

Council houses in Lambeth, South London. Image: Getty.

Councils have good reason not to like the Right To Buy, the Thatcher-era policy which gives council tenants the right to buy their council homes. It was foisted upon them by national government. It forced them to sell assets that they owned and, in many cases, had built too, and to do so at a discount. 

And most annoyingly of all, they didn’t even get to keep the takings: for much of the scheme’s history, those went straight to the Treasury (though they can now hang on to them if they get special permission from the government first). If someone forced you to sell your stuff for a fraction of its value and then ran off with the money, you wouldn’t enjoy the experience either.

So it’d be no surprise if the Local Government Association (LGA), an umbrella group representing councils, might not be wild about Right To Buy either. But it’s come up with a much more subtle strategy than merely hating on it. The problem with Right To Buy, a report published yesterday argues, is not that it’s a poor deal for the taxpayer, or that it’s mucked up the housing market. The problem with Right To Buy is that it’s “threatening the future of Right To Buy”. 

A quote:

Tenants have received discounts of nearly £5bn to help purchase their council home under the Right to Buy (RTB) scheme since the size of the discount was increased in April 2012, new analysis by the Local Government Association reveals today.

While Right to Buy has helped many families get on the housing ladder, the LGA said the scheme faces an uncertain future unless councils are given the flexibility to set discounts locally and retain 100 per cent of sales receipts to fund the replacement of homes sold off under the scheme.

I completely and utterly love the sneakiness of this press release. If zooms past the shocking fact that the government has chucked nearly £5bn at a few lucky people as part of a policy that has always shamelessly being about turning Labour council tenants into Tory voting homeowners. (No such discounts are on offer for private tenants to buy out their landlords, you note.) It doesn’t dwell on the fact the whole policy is frankly insulting to councils, treating them as lackeys for central government rather than democratic institutions in their own right. All that’s in there, but we’re left to infer that it’s bad.

No: the real problem with Right to Buy is that it’s just endangering Right To Buy. If we keep going like this, the argument runs, there won’t be any properties left to sell under Right To Buy, and where will Right To Buy be then? Surely even this Tory government will be moved by Right To Buy’s plight?

To be honest, I mainly wanted to comment on this campaign tactic (honestly, it’s genius), but since we’ve come this far, let’s look at the rest of the press release. The LGA’s figures – that £4.9bn in discounts – were arrived at by adding up the discounts on the 79,119 homes sold under the schemes between 2012-13 and 2018-19. 

Why start in April 2012? Because that’s when the Cameron government amended the policy, to increase the available discount to £75,000 or 60 per cent of the value of a house/70 per cent of that of a flat, whichever is lower. That is a hell of a discount – so not unnaturally, a lot of tenants have gone for it, and a lot of councils have been left out of pocket.

There’s more. As it stands, councils are only able to use a third of their receipts – already less than the value of a home – to build a replacement. Shockingly, by which I mean it’s not actually remotely shocking in any way, this hasn’t resulted in like to like replacements, and 

...with councils only able to use a third of each retained RTB receipt to build a replacement home, they have only been able to replace around a quarter (21,720) of these homes sold in the same period.

The goverment has promised that homes build under Right To Buy would be replaced by new social homes built using the takings, but that obviously hasn’t happened. Luckily, the government has a plan for this too: blame councils. From a consultation document, dating from August 2018:

...local authorities have not been building enough Right to Buy replacements to match the pace of sales and the commitment that every additional home sold would be replaced on a one-for-one basis nationally is no longer being met. It is clear that local authorities need to increase their rate of delivery of new homes if they are to match the growth in sales.

To rectify all this, the LGA is calling on the government to do two things. One is to give councils more power to set discounts, to take greater account of local market conditions. The other is to allow them to keep 100 per cent of sales receipts to build new homes. Whether government will listen remains to be seen.

I do wonder, though, if the first part of the LGA’s argument might just resonate. Right To Buy is totemic in Tory circles, a symbol of how the party helps the ambitious who want to get on blah blah blah. But it is hard to see how it can continue forever, simply because councils will eventually run out of homes to sell. The attempt to extend it to housing associations – forcing non-government bodies to sell assets that the government doesn’t even own! – is a sign that the government is keen to keep it rolling in some form. One obvious next step would be to extend it to the Private Rental Sector – honestly, it’s no sillier than the housing association thing – but every time anyone suggests that the Tories all start spluttering about property rights, as if housing associations and councils don’t have property rights too.

So perhaps the LGA may have found a clever strategy to win a Tory government round to the cause of building council houses. “You want Right To Buy to continue?” its latest press release asks. “Then let us build more stuff to sell.” Worth a try.

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


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.