David Hare’s “The Permanent Way” is most powerful for what it says about outsourcing

The cast of The Permanent Way. Image: Nobby Clark.

Forgive me, CityMetric readers, for what I am about to say, but it is, I fear, true: rail regulation is not a promising topic for the theatre. That was true even when The Permanent Way, David Hare’s play about the privatisation of the railways, was first staged in 2003, at a time when regulation and safety had been much in the news. It seems all the more so today, when the run of disasters he was writing about seems, thankfully, to be long behind us.

It was a surprise to find, then, that the revival, currently showing in The Vaults below Waterloo station, not only still works as a piece of theatre. It also still has much to say about the mess this country has let its infrastructure get into.

Though I’d never before seen the play stage staged, I had read the script. Hare’s focus on wonkish topics means he’s a writer whose plays work well on the page. And the play’s verbatim nature – the script is literally pieced together from interviews with passengers, politicians, maintenance crews and rail experts – means it’s as much an act of journalism as one of theatre. (Its title, incidentally, is an artefact of railway history: the permanent way is the track that replaced the temporary one used during construction.)

So I already knew the play’s core argument: that the 1996 rail privatisation was, in effect, an act of theft from the British people, which should have made us furious then and should make us all furious still.

Worse, it was one conducted by people who knew comically little about the things they were flogging to the highest bidder. We hear from ministers and investment bankers who see privatisation as a purely financial transaction rather than something that might actually affect real people. One of the funniest anecdotes related in the play concerns the Tory minister whose big idea was to force two trains to compete on speed, by leaving a station at roughly the same time and seeing which arrived first. The only slight problem is they could never figure out the over-taking.

What isn’t apparent from the page, though, is quite how emotional a play it is. It was written in the aftermath of no fewer than four fatal rail crashes on the lines around London, the worst of which (Ladbroke Grove, 5 October 1999) killed 31 people and injured over 400. In between the discussions of rail policy we hear from the victims of those accidents, and the families of those who died.

In one scene, a mother tells of the death of her adult son, while her suicidal husband finds it too hard to speak. In others, a woman talks about the victims’ support network she runs, wearing a mask throughout because her face was so badly scared in the crash. The author Nina Bawden relates the conversation she had with her husband as their settled down for the journey that was to end his life. All these testimonies are genuinely painful, and rendered all the more powerful from being staged beneath the tracks into Waterloo station, an environment in which you’re aware of real trains the whole time.

There’s another point being made by Hare’s play, more subtle than simply “privatisation bad”. It’s that the precise way the network was privatised has led to cut corners and a lack of accountability. Responsibility is split between the government, the train operators, the infrastructure operator, and the sub-contractors those other bodies rely on. Everyone evades responsibility, and justice is not forthcoming for the victims of those crashes: there is always somebody else to blame.

Derailments have been thankfully rare in the years since Hare’s play premiered, suggesting that the reforms which followed may have had some effect. But it’s hard to watch Hare’s play now and not see its echoes elsewhere. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire is another incident of corporate manslaughter, in which privatisation and outsourcing have allowed public and private agencies to evade responsibility simply by blaming one another. Two years on, the victims of that are still waiting for justice, too.

The Permanent Way is on at the Vaults, beneath London Waterloo station, until 17 November. 


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.