The Southern Rail mess isn’t a privatisation failure – it’s a return to the 1970s

A helpful and informative sign at East Dulwich this morning. Image: Getty.

London’s Southern Railway has been dominating the headlines all summer, due to its sheer awfulness. But the underlying dispute isn’t a failure of privatisation: it’s a fight between unions and managers, directed by Conservative politicians, about how to reform a nationalised industry. This may sound familiar to older readers.

On your journeys to work this summer, particularly if being cooked at 32C on the Central Line, you can at least take solace that some commuters have it worse than you. It’s impossible to open a newspaper without reading of the woes of Southern Railway, which operates trains out of London Bridge and Victoria to outer London, Sussex and Surrey.

Politicians including Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, and Conservative backbenchers on the route, have called for the service to be renationalised, stripped of its franchise, or given to Transport for London to manage. CityMetric even called for the latter here.

There’s one small problem: none of these will help.

The most important thing to know about Southern Railway is that it doesn’t actually exist. It used to, from 2001 up until July 2015. Then, it was a fairly standard UK rail franchise. (We’ve talked about those, too.) In summary: the company paid the Department for Transport money for the right to operate trains, collect fares, and take the profits.

But this changed in 2015. Instead of taking new bids when this contract ran out, the DfT merged a whole bunch of services into a single new tender. The new Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise was the largest in the UK in terms of passengers, trains and employees.

And, importantly, it is not a franchise like Southern was.

Instead of auctioning off the right to run trains and collect fares, the new tender was for a service delivery contract. The operator must meet specifications laid down by the DfT, hand over fares to the DfT, and collect a service fee from the DfT in exchange.

There’s nothing wrong with this model. It works well for London Overground and London Buses. And there was a good reason to bring it in: the Thameslink Programme will be finished during the franchise’s term, and many routes that used to terminate at London Bridge or Kings Cross will shift to the cross-London Thameslink route. This is easier to manage if you don’t have to worry about multiple companies allocating profits, costs and delays between themselves.

Several companies bid for the new contract, with Govia Thameslink Railway the winner. GTR doesn’t use its own brand, instead running trains under their old names – including Southern.

It’s these major changes in how the franchise is structured which have created the commuter woes. Some of them can be put down to the massive upheaval you’d expect from a major construction project – one that that both directly gets in the way of services, and involves changing long-established routes, terminuses and timetables.

But there’s a bigger upheaval going on, and to understand that, you need to go back in time.


GTR’s routes have mostly been operating for over a century, and their workers were pioneers in the UK’s union movement. Railwaymen fought the many companies that owned the railways for decent working conditions and pay.

But these were never standardised nationally. Even under British Rail, the great effort of negotiating national standards and practices was a lower priority than simple survival. Instead, changes to create a workforce that suited a modern railway were negotiated piecemeal as upgrades took place, depending on managers’ preferences; and money was made available to sweeten the pill of reduced staffing or more variable hours.

When BR built the original Thameslink route in the 1980s, it shifted its trains to driver-only-operation, because train guards’ role in opening doors and dealing with breakdowns was now redundant. As weekend services grew across British Rail's network, driver contracts on some routes were shifted to a seven-day roster, so that they no longer relied on voluntary overtime. But on most of the network, including what is now Southern, this didn’t happen – and privatisation further reduced the incentive for difficult changes.  

This becomes a big problem when routes with different practices and contracts get merged into one. Thameslink drivers operate the doors; Southern mainline drivers don’t operate the doors. Southern mainline trains always carry guards, while Thameslink trains don’t. Given that these will soon be the same rolling stock, operating the same services, this situation is ridiculous and needs to be resolved.

Now, there’s a long-established model for successfully bringing about changes in working practices, which involves managers and unions working together to come up with efficient solutions that share out the benefits of change. It’s called Germany. There’s also a long-established model for guaranteeing that working practice changes are a disaster, which involves hostile press briefings, strike threats, and refusal to compromise on money on the one side or efficiencies on the other. It’s called 1970s Britain.

We know that the Germany model works and that the 1970s model doesn’t. But we also know that there’s a huge attachment to union-bashing and refusing to settle among Conservative politicians. Who control the DfT. Which – I said this would be important – gets to tell GTR what to do. So Conservative politicians who hate unions ultimately control negotiations with Southern’s staff.

The direct strike action this has provoked would be bad enough if Southern ran a seven-day roster, but it doesn’t: it’s entirely dependent on driver goodwill for its Sunday service, and is understaffed enough that it’s partially dependent on volunteer overtime and swaps for the rest of the week.

There’s only one thing that can fix Southern in the short term, and it’s a complete change in attitude from the people in charge of the government. Who, if you’ve not been paying attention, have just changed.

So, come on Theresa May – are you going to meet the unions and end the painful stalemate your predecessor created? Or are you going to drag this out into a pyrrhic victory where everyone loses, like the miner’s strike your predecessor-minus-a-few created?

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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.