Could the London Borough of Havering really create a “Romford Tramlink”?

Romford is the cruelest city. Image: Sunil060902/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a thread of CityMetric content called “fantasy metro maps“, in which people, basically, draw mini-tube maps for their cities and send them to me. Why this is the sort of thing anyone would enjoy spending their spare time doing remains a mystery to me…

…which is odd, really, because when I was a tiny nerd I did it myself.

At some point in the early 1990s I scrawled out what was, basically, a light rail network for the Havering, the Essex-tinged east London borough where I grew up. My putative tram network included north-south routes, linking the borough’s three main east-west railways (District line, Fenchurch Street-Tilbury line, and the Liverpool Street-Shenfield line soon to be known as Crossrail), and connecting the north Romford rail deserts of Collier Row and Harold Hill to London’s transport network. It absorbed the tiny Romford-Upminster shuttle train, today a part of the Overground. And, by a weird coincidence, it centred on the Drill roundabout, a big junction just five minutes’ walk from my childhood home.

You can’t see this map: I haven’t seen it in years, and assume it must have long ago gone to join the great atlas in the sky. But that doesn’t matter, because early this month Ian Visits unearthed a 2018 Havering council planning document, and it turns out that the local council have basically redrawn it for me:

The proposal. Click to expand. Image: Havering Council, via Ian Visits.

 

 

Couple of things to note about this map. One is the way it ever so slightly conflates proposed transport projects from completely different planes of reality. Beam Park railway station, on the Fenchurch Street-Tilbury line between Rainham and Dagenahm Dock, is a serious proposal, to serve a new housing estate, and is due to open in May 2022. The bridge across the Thames to Belvedere is also a serious proposal, in that Transport for London has actually been considering it – but given how difficult it’s been to get east London river crossings built throughout history, it’s still in that category best described as “I’ll believe it when I see it”. The same goes for the link to the Lower Thames Crossing, a crossing which does not, as yet, exist.

But then there are the bits where even that label would be too generous. The DLR extension not only to Dagenham Dock but beyond to Beam Park was not, last I checked, on the table. The idea of a Central line extension to Collier Row – presumably from Barkingside or Hainault – is as it happen another idea Baby Jonn came up with at some point in the 1990s (honestly, there’s nothing in the way but fields). But I am not convinced that a new branch of the Central line is something you could talk about to TfL without getting laughed at.


And then there’s the “light rail (tram)” network, which is extremely close to what I drew with my crayons all those years ago. It connects Rainham in the south with Collier Row and Harold Wood in the north, via the borough’s commercial centre at Romford. It even re-appropriates the Overground shuttle, Croydon-tramlink style. Throw in an entirely unnecessary diversion via the Drill Roundabout, and I could probably sue for copyright infringement.

But it feels unlikely, let’s say, that this is going to actually happen. “We’re now carrying out feasibility studies into a future tram link to improve connections between the north and south of the borough,” the planning document says. But councils don’t have that sort of capital funding – and TfL seems unlikely to prioritise orbital transport in a relatively low-density outer London borough.

And yet, two things. Firstly, as noted, something of this sort really did happen in Croydon, where several underused heavy rail branches were connected with on-street sections to form what is now the London Trams. Croydon is a bigger centre than Romford, but not an order of magnitude bigger. This proposal is unlikely, but it isn’t entirely crazy.

The other thing is that it’s really nice that council planning departments are being ambitious with their transport planning – even if it does look, from this distance, like they’re just playing Fantasy Metro Networks, too. And it’s given me something self-indulgent to write, and isn’t that really the true meaning of Christmas?

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

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