Last train home: all aboard the housing express

Without a coordinated strategy to tackle the North’s housing crisis, plans to modernise the region’s transport infrastructure are unlikely to stay on track. Or is it the other way around? 

By Mark Cantrell 

RAIL commuters will certainly be in no mood for a reminder of last year’s travel chaos; still less to live through its hell ever again.

But, while civic leaders expressed exasperation and passengers howled outrage at Northern Rail’s much-publicised failings, plans were being formulated to some day make such pain a thing of the past (one hopes).

That’s no consolation for those who went through 2018’s mayhem, of course, or who continue to endure the realities of old and overcrowded trains, chronic under-investment in infrastructure, poor industrial relations, and costly fares.

Northern Housing #4
Northern Housing #4

Many a plan makes promises it subsequently fails to deliver. Even so, earlier this year Transport for the North (TfN) launched its 30-year Strategic Transport Plan (STP) and investment programme, which set its vision on modernising the North’s clapped out transport infrastructure. The aim is to establish better connections to make it easier to travel in and around our regions, if not for today’s commuters then at least for those to come.

The benefits of these transport interventions include a £100 billion boost to economic growth and the creation of around 850,000 new jobs in the decades ahead. In short, it supposedly helps gives us some light at the end of a long, dark tunnel of relative economic decline.

“The strategic transport plan is a hugely important document for the North,” said Barry White, TfN’s chief executive. “It is our vision for a prosperous pan-Northern future and outlines how investment in transport could transform our economy.

“For the people of the North, this will mean more choice over where they live and work, access to higher quality jobs and better connections to friends and families. It will mean our businesses have more opportunity to collaborate, trade and grow in a sustainable way.

“The final plan will be a statutory document written by the North, for the North, and will be our blueprint to deliver transformational change and leave a legacy for future generations.”

Encapsulated in the STP and investment programme is backing for Northern Powerhouse Rail, a proposal to invest up to £39 billion to create a modern rail network for the North; a package billed as being the single biggest transport intervention since the Industrial Revolution.

“Our leaders had a vision to connect the North by rail like never before,” said Tim Wood, TfN’s Northern Powerhouse Rail director. “We are a step closer to making that a reality. In Northern Powerhouse Rail, we have turned ambition and passion into a robust evidence base for investment.

“It provides viable options and solutions to the North’s rail challenges. For too long, passengers and businesses have been held back by slower than average train speeds and poor connectivity between our city regions. If we are going to rebalance the UK’s economy, this needs to be tackled head on.”

The aim is to not only link up the North’s towns, cities and conurbations, but also join the dots to HS2 and thereby – in theory – help boost national connectivity. Broadly speaking, this is something all our region’s civic and business leaders can agree on; who’s going to argue with greater freedom of movement for citizens and businesses (hardcore Brexiteers nothwithstanding)?

As Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, said at a Westminster debate with minsters and MPs back in March: “Getting transport infrastructure spend right for regions across Britain will help each and every part of the country contribute to national prosperity. This is not about a binary North versus south debate. This is about the benefits of growth being better shared between, as well as within, regions.

“If you believe in social mobility then you must ensure that people can move around to access opportunities, connecting people with the places they need to go. We need to ensure that we connect our nation’s best talent with the opportunities that will enable them to reach their full potential.”

That’s all great as far as it goes, but what has any of this got to do with housing, you might ask. Fair enough, but the ramifications are vital for both sectors: transport and housing are inextricably linked.

“The relationship between housing and transport is undeniable,” said a spokesperson for Homes for the North (H4N). “You simply can’t attract businesses and create employment opportunities in an area unless it is well connected and has enough quality homes – at a variety of tenures and price points – to house people.

“It’s widely acknowledged that an investment in infrastructure within and to an area is a vote of confidence in its prospects – the same is true of housing… It’s time to move towards a more unified approach to housing and transport infrastructure when planning for growth.”

This deeply intertwined relationship between transport and housing is something the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) is also keen to emphasise.

“The [TfN] plan reiterates the estimated need for 50,000 new homes in the North. That those new homes will need adequate connectivity – not just a dependency on cars – is not new. Congestion arising from new housing development contributes significantly to objections to local plans,” said Tracy Harrison, the organisation’s deputy chief executive.

“For existing housing in low demand areas, desperately in need of investment, one of the biggest question marks is who will invest first? Low quality housing and low level of economic activity creates a trap in which there is no investment in improvement without the certainty of investment by others. No one wants to move first.

“The Department of Transport’s own research into the role of transport in areas requiring regeneration refers to this as ‘coordination failure’. It remains to be seen whether the STP will deliver a way out of this trap. “Transport improvement can be the catalyst that generates chains of improvement. Housing is deeply interconnected with local economies and labour markets – including education, health, wellbeing and wider social deprivation – but on its own will not be the catalyst for growth.”

Government – public sector – investment has often been one way of encouraging otherwise wary private sector investors to dip their toes in the water, whatever the sector, but that brings us to a particular bugbear for H4N and others. That, of course, is a long-standing imbalance in the Westminster bubble’s outlook on ‘national’ investment.

“The North has seen significantly lower levels of investment in transport than other parts of the country over previous years,” H4N’s spokesperson said. “The lack of transport investment has left places with poor connectivity and reduced access to job opportunities, leaving many people little choice but to move to areas with greater opportunity. Often this leads to the migration of skilled workers further south, closer to the London hub.”

This ‘brain drain’ isn’t just about poor connectivity; it’s also about the nature of the North’s housing need, which is why H4N is working with TfN on research into how both investment in transport and housing will impact economic growth, and in turn how that growth is likely to further fuel future demand for housing.

“We’re now accounting for the role of homes in accelerating growth. Moreover, an economic strategy for the North must account for and promise investment for housing and transport infrastructure in tandem as the two are fundamental for growth and opportunity,” said H4N’s spokesperson.

“Transformed connectivity across the North will give people… across the country greater flexibility in where they choose to live, work and play. TfN’s strategy, taking in a pan-Northern approach, will create better transport links across the key city regions of the North, creating more opportunities, which will mean more housing. To truly tackle this challenge, we desperately need to rethink how local housing need is calculated.”

For the NHC’s Harrison, it’s important not to lose sight of the local amidst the regional, if all of this is to bear any kind of fruit.

“High speed trains grab the headlines but day-to-day, people face the challenge of getting to local employment easily and cheaply,” she said. “Alongside the STP, we would like to see a vision for how housing will be planned in relation to the road and rail network. This should include the intentions of the combined authorities, which have developed their own key transport plans to support housing and employment growth.

“TfN has produced a significant report. It is a major achievement that should not be under-estimated. But a transport strategy that priorities highspeed trains without a focus on local public transport between housing developments and local employment and local transport hubs will only deliver part of the North’s growth.”

Housing and transport, it seems, are like bitter twins; we won’t resolve the woes of one without healing the hurts of the other. All aboard.

NH

This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #4 April 2019

 

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