Show Hide image

With capacity comes opportunity

Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth.

The UK’s rail network fulfils a vital role in connecting our towns, cities, communities and regions. But rail provides much more than a means of getting from A to B. Improvements that boost capacity or open up new routes provide a powerful stimulus for growth, regeneration and employment. Investing in rail is one of the most effective ways to boost the UK economy.

Investment is needed now because the current network is approaching full capacity. Today, rail supports 40 per cent more passenger journeys and 60 per cent more freight than it did a decade ago. At peak times on the busiest parts of the network, there is simply no space for more trains. Yet over the next 30 years, Network Rail expects freight demand to rise by 140 per cent and passenger demand to more than double.

Government and industry are working together to meet this capacity challenge across the rail network.

Practical improvements to ease congestion include running more frequent services and employing longer trains. However, even these apparently simple measures are not straightforward, as improvements to stations and platforms are typically needed to cater for additional carriages and increased passenger volumes.

One example of this is a project designed to increase capacity at Bank Underground station in the City of London. One of the capital’s most complex infrastructure schemes, the work will improve connection times between Tube lines and dramatically improve the passenger experience. A new Northern Line southbound tunnel will liberate more platform space, while improved interchange tunnels and an additional station entrance will reduce crowding at peak times. Tunnelling will take place under iconic landmarks such as the Bank of England and Mansion House, and importantly the work has been carefully planned to ensure that this crucial transport hub will remain open throughout construction.

That said, there is a limit to what can be done with existing infrastructure, and new lines will play an important part in supporting increased rail traffic.

HS2, one of the UK’s most transformational new rail projects, is set to have a profound impact on the economy. It will provide a high-speed link bridging the north-south divide and, importantly, liberate passenger and freight capacity by taking longer journeys off existing lines.

There is also growing investment in the country’s regional and rural lines. The reopening of disused railway lines is an efficient way of meeting demand by reclaiming former infrastructure.

A prime example of how new railway investment can revitalise communities is offered by the Borders Railway project. Delivered by Network Rail in partnership with Transport Scotland, the project involves reopening the Waverley Line that was closed by Beeching in 1969.

The new line is more than a restoration of the original route – it includes 30 miles of new track and seven new stations, making it the longest new domestic railway to be constructed in Britain for more than 100 years. As well as a driver for local regeneration, the new line has already proved to be a catalyst for the wider Scottish economy, driving inward investment, business development and housing opportunities. New communities are developing along the route, and with them numerous opportunities for employment, business, tourism and leisure.

The Waverley Line example demonstrates both the harm caused by a lack of infrastructure and the benefits of network improvements, underlining the strong connection between investment in rail and economic growth.

Clearly, rail is not the answer to every transport question. The greatest stimulus to the economy will come from a joinedup approach, where improvements to rail, road and aviation are tackled in concert.

Coordinated development at a national scale will not be easy, but the potential rewards could be huge.

Ian Hay is the UK director of rail at URS Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth

 

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496