So why was the housing white paper such a damp squib?

Oh, Sajid, how could you fail us so? Communities secretary Sajid Javid. Image: Getty.

The housing white paper, communities secretary Sajid Javid said in his speech to the Commons, is a “bold, radical vision” which will “meet our obligation to build many more houses, of the type people want to live in, and [in] the places they want to live”. That sounds great – so you’d imagine it’d be getting a fair number of plaudits from the wonkosphere, right?

“Government must go further to tackle the housing crisis,” was the IPPR’s response from the left. “A missed opportunity,” replied the Adam Smith Institute from the right.

And those were just think tanks. The specialist housing campaigners were even less appreciative. “White Paper leaves most renters without long term homes”, said Generation Rent. “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years,” concluded Shelter. PricedOut put it more simply: “The government has bottled it.”

Even Grant Shapps – the same Grant Shapps who, as Tory housing minister, who used to get booed at housing conferences – was scathing. “Housing ministers over the years have come out with documents or bills, and the truth is none of them are going to make much difference,” he said. “And I don’t suppose this will make that much difference either.”

So, that’s all good.

Where did it all go wrong? The housing white paper, after all, measures that are, if not the bold, radical vision Javid promised us, certainly steps in the right direction. It contains rather a lot of them, in fact: Letting Agent Today (yes) published a story under the headline, “Here are all 29 key points in the Housing White Paper”, which gives you some sense of quite how difficult this thing is to summarise. Here are some of the bigger ones.

Firstly, there’s the “build, build, build” stuff. The white paper acknowledges that successive governments have failed to get Britain building enough (duh), and attempts to correct this. That means forcing councils to produce more realistic housing plans for their areas, which is new, and promising to release public land for new housing, which isn’t.

It also wants to put more pressure on housebuilders to get on with the job. It’ll use a £3bn fund to encourage smaller firms back into the market, in an effort to increase competition. It’ll also slash the maximum time developers can sit on a site with planning permission without building anything, from three years to two, in an attempt to prevent land-banking. Those are the sticks: the carrot is a streamlined planning process, which will, among other things, make it easier to add extra storeys to increase density in urban areas.

Lastly, there are a few crumbs for renters. It’ll encourage the development of new private rental housing with longer, more secure tenancies, backed by institutional investors. (Unlike individual buy-to-let landlords, pension funds are unlikely to refuse to replace a broken boiler, say, on the grounds that they can’t afford it.) It’ll also ban letting agent fees. And it’ll introduce banning orders, to force the worst landlords and agents out of the market.

Al these things are, if not revolutionary, at least good. They will help, a bit. The same cannot be said of many of the Cameron-era interventions, notably Help to Buy.

So why the widespread gnashing of teeth? The explanations seem to lie in the things that aren’t in the white paper.

Take the stuff about councils. Getting them to plan for more houses is all very well – many, especially in leafy Tory areas like Bromley, have behaved in a way that suggests they think the housing crisis was something that just happened to other people. But it’s not clear that, seven years into austerity, councils have the sort of resources or expertise in their planning department to do this.

It’s also weirdly mis-targeted. Councils don’t build housing: housebuilders do. Councils can plan all they want, but they can’t force private firms to build. And there is nothing in the white paper to help either councils or housing associations start building at scale – which is a shame, because they’d like to and are less motivated than private firms to keep house prices high at all costs.

The tenants’ rights stuff is a damp squib, too. The longer contracts will only apply to new, “build to rent” homes, and the investors who own them will likely want long-term tenants anyway simply because they’re a better investment: the government intervention may be unnecessary.

What’s more, those homes won’t appear for years, and will probably favour richer tenants when they eventually do. So the vast, vast majority of Britain’s renters, stuck in existing homes with smaller-scale landlords, still have no access to a secure home on the horizon. As Graeme Brown, the interim chief executive of Shelter, said in a statement: “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years.”


But the biggest gap in the white paper, the thing that’ll render all the good stuff in there almost meaningless, is – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – land. The reason we aren’t building enough homes is because – in the cities where demand is highest – restrictions like the green belt mean we don’t have enough places to put them. We either need to build out (so rethink the green belt); or we need to build up (which means knocking a bunch of stuff down and starting again). Physically, these things are easy to do; politically they aren’t.

And this white paper makes no attempt. It promises to protect the green belt, despite the fact that chunks of it aren’t green and are nestled right up against transport links. It bangs on, as government housing policies always have, about making use of brownfield and densification.

Well, those are the things we do now. They haven’t worked. Brownfield-first strategies are more complex, so take longer. They also cost more, since they often mean clearing occupied, contaminated or otherwise difficult sites. All this is possible – but it will take a concerted government effort and probably quite a lot of money. There is a reason that, of the two big east London regeneration sites, Stratford, which hosted the Olympics, has happened and Barking Riverside didn’t and hasn’t.

All these things can be fixed. A government that really wanted to take a radical approach to housing could say to landlords that tenant security was more important so, sorry, they were going to lose a few rights. It could be honest about the fact that this crisis wasn’t going to be solved through platitudes about brownfield, that the green belt needed review, and that a few golf courses and bits of framland was a small price to pay to build the homes we needed. The government didn’t have the guts to do any of those things.

It’s tempting to blame Javid for this failure, but I suspect the real culprit lies further up the chain of command. Theresa May, whatever her other qualities, understands the middle England electorate in constituencies like her own Maidenhead. They are precisely the people who want to protect green belt at all costs, who use buy-to-let property to supplement their incomes, and who definitely don’t want their house prices to fall. This white paper does absolutely nothing to threaten their privileges.

It won’t solve the housing crisis. It won’t even come close. But it’s likely that it’s done its job nonetheless.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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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.