To solve the housing crisis, we should give councils freedom to borrow

The government has this week launched a £54m package aimed at helping local authorities make the most out of their surplus land for housing. This includes a £45m ‘land release fund’, through which cities will bid for cash to remediate sites for residential projects, and to build any extra infrastructure required to unlock awkward or remote sites.

The new announcement will also see an extra £9m made by One Public Estate, a partnership between the Local Government Association (LGA) and Cabinet Office which offers funding and support for councils to “deliver ambitious property-focused programmes”.

These initiatives reflect the need for local authorities to make the best possible use of the disused land and buildings at their disposal, as set out in our recent report and previous research on this issue from 2015. Both of these reports discussed the LGA’s One Public Estate programme as a significant help, giving cities and local authorities under huge budgetary pressure the resources to help them look at their public assets and how they can be used to reduce costs, reform services and earn capital receipts from the disposal of any surplus property.

The new package announced by the government this week should make a difference in realising one of the central ambitions for the One Public Estate programme of releasing surplus council-owned land for 160,000 homes by 2020. Few people would doubt the need to do so: house prices are now at least seven times higher than average local wages in 34 of 63 UK cities, and new development will bring life and economic activity to neglected or underused parts of cities. All funding to help get more homes built and support city economies is therefore to be welcomed.


But if the underlying goal is to get more homes built, then the expansion of bid-based, centrally-directed pots of money seems like a needlessly bureaucratic way for cities to try to make the most out of their assets. Instead, it would be simpler – and more in-keeping with the spirit of the government’s continued ambitions of greater devolution – to give cities with existing social housing stock greater freedom to borrow against that steady revenue to build more housing, and in particular affordable housing. After all, local authorities already have the supply chain and infrastructure in place to get more homes built – lifting the cap would give them more of the autonomy they need to go ahead and do so.

We’ve called for the removal of restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow money in order to invest in new housing on several occasions, as have cities and the LGA. But while many local authorities have headed to the Public Works Loan Board to invest in assets that will provide the returns needed to plug their finances (as well as take a greater role in shaping their economic development), borrowing more to build more homes as this programme argues is seemingly off the table.

At a time when Brexit will be consuming the time and concentration of civil servants across Whitehall, adding another round of drafting proposals, entering bids, assessing entries and deciding on winners seems to be an unnecessarily convoluted way of achieving One Public Estate’s aim of getting more homes built on council-owned land.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

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