Space on trains: the only valid argument for HS2

Economic and jobs benefits will be negligible.

The case for the new high speed rail network - the route of which was announced today - is all becoming a bit muddled. Anticipating a backlash against the project, government spokespeople have been defending it all over the place. The trouble is, there are too many versions of the defence, and most of them just don't hold water.

A Department for Transport spokesman told the Telegraph:

HS2 will bring cities closer together, drive regeneration, tackle overcrowding and stimulate economic growth.

George Osborne said the new line would be:

..not just about cutting journey times – although it does cut in half the journey time from Manchester to London – it’s also about the new stations, the prosperity that’s going to come, the jobs that are going to be created around this infrastructure.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said:

It's not just about journey times, it is also about capacity. We are finding the railways are overcrowded. We've seen massive growth in rail passenger numbers, so this is taking HS2 so it serves the north.

The key claims for the line have been that a) joining London to the north and Midlands will help redistribute jobs, that b) the UK is behind the rest of Europe in terms of fast connectivity between cities, that c) the line will generally stimulate economic growth, and that d) rail transport is at capacity and we simply need more lines. Let's just unpack each claim:

a) The new HS2 will redistribute jobs.

The presence of a high speed rail will probably redistribute jobs. But it will most likely redistribute them in the direction of London and the South East. While Birmingham and Manchester (which both have stations on the new line) will also benefit a bit, this will be at the expense of the rest of the region. There won't be many stations, and the small towns which miss out on these will miss out economically too.

b) The UK lacks fast connectivity between cities compared to other places in Europe.

Although European trains are faster (France's TGV services have been reaching 200mph since 1981) - our cities are on average closer together. This means that journey times between major cities are actually faster than our European competitors, according to campaigners.

c) The rail line will stimulate economic growth.

The model from which the government is making these estimates is "exquisitely sensitive to small variations in growth assumptions", according to Dr J Savin, whose extensive financial analysis of the economic benefits of the line can be read here. Making broad claims about the economic advantages, he argues, is therefore distinctly shaky. He also writes that the uneven spread of benefits is not desirable either:

"A project that the entire UK pays for but that benefits two regions disproportionately, one of them being the richest parts of London, is hardly equitable."

d) We need more lines, as rail transport is at capacity.

In the final analysis, the only argument for the new HS2 that actually holds is that the rail services are too crowded. Network Rail told the BBC that the southern section of the West Coast Main Line will be "effectively full" by 2024. We do need more lines - but not for all the reasons the government is putting forward.

HS2 route was announced today. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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