These maps show that Britain now has the highest rents in Europe

Is this the future of urban living? James Mahoney's engraving of the gruel sequence from The Adventures of Oliver Twist. Image: public domain.

Oh yeah, knew I'd forgotten something. Here we are, Wednesday evening already, and so far this week I haven't attempted to drive Britain's young, hip and increasingly numerous private renters mad with despair even once. Tch. I'm losing my touch.

So, here are some upsetting numbers, just for you. According to research just published by the National Housing Federation (NHF), the average monthly rent across the EU now stands at €481. The average monthly rent in the UK, meanwhile, is €902 – nearly twice as high – giving us the highest rent in Europe.

We're number one! We're number one!

"Aha!" I can hear some of you – probably the sort of smart arses with buy-to-let empires who haven't been on the wrong side of the rental contract since 1974 – say. "But that's an unfair comparison. You'd expect rents to be higher in Britain than in Bulgaria, wouldn't you? Britain is rich. Idiot. Trot."

And, to be fair, it is an unfair comparison. Much fairer to compare Britain only to other rich countries.

Oh, look, it doesn't make any difference. Check out this map:

Source: National Housing Federation.

Even in other rich countries rents are lower than they are in Britain. Not just a bit. By a lot.

There's another way of demonstrating this. Here's another map, this time of the proportion of household income going on rents:

Source: National Housing Federation.

Once again, Britain is at the top, though at least this time we can see the Spanish suffering right alongside with us.

It's worth quoting at length the blog post where we found these maps. It’s by NFG research officer Gerald Koessl, and it discusses what all this is doing to us as a nation:

This puts a burden on household budgets. As a smaller proportion of households are buying a home and more are privately renting, the cost of renting is a concern. Individuals and families have to spend the equivalent of around 23 minutes out of every hour worked to pay for their rent, while it is around 17 minutes of every hour worked across the whole of Europe.

Koessl doesn't mention the impact on the welfare bill (these rents have sent housing benefits through the roof). Nor does he discuss their impact on the wider economy (they’re diverting investors' cash into unproductive assets made of bricks, too).

High rents, in other words, are awful – for everyone, that is, except landlords.


In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.

Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.