When will the Tories accept that, to end homelessness, you need homes?

Sleeping rough in London. Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor writes...

When it comes to housing, the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto is scant on detail. But buried deep within there is a clear pledge to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”. What’s more, there is a plan to fund all this by “bringing in a stamp duty surcharge on non-UK resident buyers.”

This gives the government 1,535 days to end street homelessness. It is without doubt a worthy ambition. But it’s one that does not acknowledge that government policy over the past decade has caused the number of people bedding down on the streets each night to rocket: in England it spiralled from 1,768 people in Autumn 2010 to 4,677 people in Autumn 2018, according to the government’s own figures

A benefits system that’s becoming impossible to navigate, particularly the cap on local housing allowance that means some areas have quite literally no privately rented homes available to those claiming housing benefit, is causing street homelessness. The fact that so many are denied the help they need because of the callous No Recourse to Public Funds policy also plays its part. 

Amidst all this turmoil, local authorities have tried their best. In Islington we have appointed an in-house Rough Sleeping Coordinator who oversees all of our work, and our outreach team do joint shifts with a range of brilliant partner groups in the borough, including those specialising in help with substance abuse, medical support, and assisting with the specific issues that female rough sleepers face. We were also proud to support local groups in setting up the Hornsey Road Solidarity Homeless Shelter. Local businesses from Hornsey Road Traders Association also provided some money for the initiative. 

We also piloted a Housing First programme with five of our own council homes. Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationally in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers together with a package of wrap around support. Most recently, we are proud to be part of the new homeless shelter now operating at the former Holloway Prison Visitors’ Centre. 

But none of this is easy at a time when councils like Islington are dealing with a 70 per cent cut in their core government funding over a decade. So let’s assume just for a moment that in the forthcoming Autumn budget and in budget days to come, that the tap is turned on so that all local authorities have ample funds to spend on homeless outreach and particularly on Housing First programmes. With Housing First the clue is in the name – in order to work it requires a supply of housing. Put simply, the government’s plan does not acknowledge the primary reason for homelessness: a lack of genuinely affordable homes. 

To solve that, we need to build lots more genuinely affordable homes for social rent. Government spending on building new homes actually fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP. The grant that councils can obtain to build new homes generally doesn’t cover any more than a third of the build costs. There is just one mention of council housing in the Conservative manifesto, and it refers to a pledge to maintain the right to buy policy, which continues to decimate the number of council homes available. There is no lack of political will in local authorities to build council homes – but the government needs to stop stacking the system against us.

Without a change in government attitude and policy towards council and social housing, homelessness will continue to rise. But even more concerning is that the government actually seems intent on building even fewer social rent homes. The new flagship First Homes policy suggests that homes for sale discounted by up to £100k will be built through s106 planning agreements. In Islington we have some of the toughest planning policies in the country, requiring all developments of over ten homes to be 50 per cent genuinely affordable, including 35 per cent homes for social rent. 

It’s a policy that we are not afraid to enforce and on the Parkhurst Road case, where a developer tried to argue that they couldn’t comply because they had paid too much for their site, we took it all the way to the High Court and won. A postscript to the judgment sets out that future guidance from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) should make clear that developers shouldn’t seek to mitigate high purchase prices by reducing social housing numbers.

So any forthcoming legislation that requires planning agreements to focus on discounted homes for sale will mean that fewer homes for social rent are built and, ultimately, lead to more homelessness. 

On the available evidence, it would appear that the promise to end rough sleeping is doomed to failure without a fundamental change in the direction of government policy. I am happy to be proved wrong in the next 1,535 days. But it’s time to get a move on. 

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington. 


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.