Want to solve the affordable housing crisis? Let housing associations build

An east London housing association estate. Image: Getty.

The chief executive of a housing association writes.

Everybody is talking about the housing crisis and how the market is in urgent need of reform. As well as a general shortage of housing across the board, arguably the biggest issue is the lack of homes that are genuinely affordable for people on modest incomes. The big developers that dominate the market are simply not delivering stock that meets these people’s needs – a problem government now recognises, but policymakers seem to lack an answer to.

The first challenge is to get to the bottom of where exactly we need more new homes to be developed that meet the needs of the majority of people on modest earnings. It isn’t a simple case of trying to shoehorn a bit more affordable development into the more expensive places to live. We need to understand where it is difficult to access affordable housing, but also think about the opportunities the housing needs to provide access to, such as a healthy jobs market, wages that meet the local cost of living and decent state schools. In other words, where is it that families on average incomes are most likely to struggle to simply get on?

This is where this report marks a new and important contribution by creating the first Northern Powerhouse Liveability Index. This unique research creates a new measure of ‘liveability’, which combines the availability of affordable housing with multiple factors that capture the quality of life and opportunity available for average earners. It ranks every local authority in the north of England, giving a new picture that challenges much existing thinking about where we need more affordable housing to be built. 

For example, despite having reputations for below-average housing costs, Bradford, Oldham and Blackburn are among the areas identified as being most difficult to live in for average earners and most in need of new affordable homes. These ‘liveability blackspots’ combine shortages of affordable housing to meet local demand with other pressures, like low employment rates or a lack of good school places that make it difficult for people to build a decent life.

Conversely, areas like South Lakeland in Cumbria and Ribble Valley in Lancashire are renowned for high housing costs – but these are revealed to be some of the best places to live in the north for people on average incomes.

This research thus starts to create a much more real picture of where we most urgently need to build new housing. The question then, of course, is what we do about it once we have that picture. And this is where we need to rethink the housing market itself. 

The handful of large commercial developers that currently build most of the country’s housing simply do not meet the needs of people on modest incomes. Financed by speculators looking for a short-term gain, these providers are the people behind problems like land banking, where land sits for years with planning permission before any building starts, in order that the housing crisis makes the land more and more sought after over time. They also skew the commercial viability tests that accompany new development permissions in order to bias larger houses in more expensive areas where the profit returns are going to be highest.

To his credit, Sajid Javid – until this week the housing secretary – has said that he recognises these issues and wants government to crack down on them. But the problem is that it will take years to unpick all the planning rules to try to change the situation.

This is where we need to look to housing associations to step in and play a major new role. We have good balance sheets, lots of experience managing more affordable housing and the sector is becoming increasingly efficient. Best of all, we are not dependent on developing for-sale housing that delivers a high return in a short period. We typically manage lots of the rented stock people need and do so over a very long time, providing investors with a very steady, long-term return.

This is perfect territory for institutional investors like pension funds and, linking up with housing associations, we could see a really transformative model where new affordable stock could be developed at seriously large scale. The fact that this does not happen already is a classic case of market failure, which government could step in to fix – bringing investors who are unused to working with housing associations together through a new vehicle or framework for big investments in affordable housing for institutional investors.

Such collaboration between the housing association sector and institutional investors could yield substantial gains, potentially creating hundreds of thousands of new and affordable homes right across the country. 

Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.


What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.


That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.

All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.