HS2 isn't about the north of England at all – it's about commuters in Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes' "Concrete Cows". Image: Concrete Cowboy/Wikimedia Commons.

Do we need a new superfast railway so that Mancunians can get to London’s gold-paved streets more quickly? Or do we need it because the trains they take at the moment will be full in a couple of years?

Will HS2 free up space on our railways and get lorries off the motorways? Or is it all just a waste of money that will destroy the English countryside?

Those are good questions. None of them matter.

If you want to know why the UK will build HS2 then the only question that matters is, “Have you ever been to Milton Keynes?”

Endless roundabouts, concrete cows, and suburbs with names like “Walnut Tree” and “Coffee Hall”, the UK’s fastest growing city is a bizarre place. But nothing about it is more unusual than its politics.

Milton Keynes is a pretty big city. Both of its MPs are Conservatives. If you’ve been paying attention, that should shock you.

In Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Leeds — the cities at the ends of HS2 — elections are pretty much a formality. Sure, there are leaflets, and hustings, and campaigns like anywhere. But none of it matters because at the end of it all most people vote Labour anyway. In Milton Keynes they often don’t.

So what does this have to do with a railway? Well, the track from London to Birmingham, and Liverpool, and Manchester — the track that may or may not be too slow, too full, better with freight on, or about to vandalise England’s countryside — goes through Milton Keynes. And every day thousands of people from Milton Keynes cram themselves onto trains to do well-paid jobs in London.

An annual season ticket from Milton Keynes to London costs £4,880. That works out at just over £10 a journey for a trip of 45 miles each way, about 25 pence a mile.

Walk up to Manchester Piccadilly station early in the morning and ask for a ticket to London, and the £164.50 you’ll be charged works out at about £1 per mile. However you do the maths**, the people of Manchester are paying a lot more than the people of Milton Keynes to use the same stretch of railway.

This isn’t an accident or an oversight; this was how the system was designed when the railways were privatised. The government chickened out of letting train companies set the prices of all tickets and intervened at the last minute. Train companies could charge peak-time day-trippers what they liked; but commuters would have their fares kept low by the government.

The problem we face now is that the railway is nearly full. Passenger numbers are increasing, and a select group of travellers are exempt from the usual mechanism of rationing supply – price.

The market solution to this problem would be simple. Fares for commuters from Milton Keynes should increase, to stop the railway from getting too full. But the Conservatives have promised not to raise fares.

There is an alternative market solution. Network Rail could cancel some trains from Milton Keynes and run more from Manchester. That would increase the number of Mancunians, paying much more for their journeys, who could still travel. This would make Network Rail money, and save the taxpayer cash – but it would be very unpopular in Milton Keynes.

The third solution is to build a new railway, that takes some of the strain off the line between Milton Keynes and London. That way the commuters of Milton Keynes can keep enjoying cheaper travel than Mancunians, and both can still take the train.

There’s just one problem; the fares between Milton Keynes and London are far too low to justify building a new railway.

So here’s the really clever bit about HS2. We build the new railway we need to the midlands – but then keep building it north to Manchester even though we don’t need to. This lets us say that we’re building it to serve Mancunians: then we can then use their much higher fares to make the scheme look like better value for money.

Politically this trick is perfect. Commuters in Milton Keynes get investment from the government (indirectly, through the relief to the existing line), and politicians can say that they’re investing in the North. It wins votes in places they matter, and costs them in safe seats where they don’t.

So here’s my advice when you’re thinking about HS2. Don’t get distracted by Birmingham or Manchester. Don’t get distracted by the countryside, by the speed, by the lorries we could take off the M6, or by what else we could do with the money.

None of that matters.

If you want to understand why HS2 will be built, go to Milton Keynes Central station at half-past six in the evening and ask a commuter if they’d vote for a party that made their season ticket more expensive. Then ask them if they’d vote for a party who cancelled some of their trains so that more people could get between London and Manchester.

When they say no, remember that these are the people who decide British elections. Their opinions matter more than yours – and their answers leave politicians with only one possible solution. Build HS2.

**Some would argue that this is an unfair comparison. But almost no-one in Manchester commutes every day to London, so the majority of passengers are buying the anytime tickets. By contrast, lots of people in Milton Keynes commute to London, so the majority of passengers are buying season tickets. 

It doesn't matter that they're travelling on different types of ticket: these are the prices most likely to be paid by the passengers currently taking up space on the West Coast Main Line.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.