In the mid noughties I lived for two stretches in St Albans, a commuter city nestled in the Hertfordshire green belt. The first time I lived and worked in the town centre, after leaving school. Some years later I lived there again, commuting into a job in London. It’s just 18 minutes from central London by train.
Each year there are 7.5 million entries and exits through the station gates. It’s a fantastic place for commuters to live, if you can afford the exorbitant prices.
It’s also a very easy place to live without a car if you are happy to walk and cycle about town.
Yet nine in ten residents owns a car, half drive to work, and almost 7 in 10 trips are taken by car overall. Train journeys account for 7.5% of overall trips, just over a tenth the number made by car.
The city is growing, and more housing is being built to accommodate that. Partly as a consequence, traffic is forecast to increase by 12% from 2014 to 2031.
My mind casts back to my time there whenever I read another think tank, politician or pundit promote the idea that we should build homes in the green belt near train stations.
The latest is a report by Paul Cheshire and Boyana Buyuklieva for the thinktank Centre for Cities, suggesting that millions of homes should be built within 800m of train stations that have a commute of 45 minutes or less into a big town or city.
Their assumption – oft stated but never evidenced – is that by building close to these train stations all the new residents will commute into work by train, so you get a sustainable settlement. Better that, they argue, than people commuting much longer distances as they’re priced out of the cities.
The problem is that this assumption is demonstrably false. The Royal Town Planning Institute looked at the evidence in 2015, using the 2011 Census for towns near London, and found that:
building one million homes around railway stations in the [London] Metropolitan green belt could result in between 3.96 and 7.45 million additional car journeys per week on roads which are already struggling with congestion and delays.
They studied the commuting patterns of five towns with fast commutes into central London – Hemel Hempstead, Watford, High Wycombe, Maidenhead and Bracknell. The findings were almost identical to St Albans:
only 7.4% of commuters actually travel to London by train on a regular basis, despite living within easy walking or cycling distance of a station. The majority of commuters (72%) instead travel by private vehicle, mostly driving to jobs within their hometown and to other places not in London.
There are two key factors that explain these findings, and the travel patterns in St Albans.
The first is that most people don’t work in central London and commute by train. It’s an unexamined premise fixed in the minds of professional middle class researchers, for whom this is their daily experience. Most people in commuter towns work in their local town in shops, the health service, local offices and factories, or the same in a neighbouring town, or from home.
The second factor is that commuting is only one of many reasons that people travel. Most journeys are taken to go shopping, visit friends, take children to school and so on. Not many of us will take a train into central London to do those things.
The Centre for Cities report compounds the error with other details. For example, the authors propose building homes at a density of 40 homes per hectare. This is too low to sustain public transport and local shops, which means people will have to walk or cycle (or much more likely, drive) into the town centre or train station. If we do build homes in commuter towns and villages we should be thinking about intelligently improving the housing density and rethinking local transport strategies to help people out of their cars and onto buses, bikes and foot.
The report suggests a way of capturing land value uplift for ‘social purposes’ but talks of investing that money in commuter rail (which only accounts for some 7% of journeys for work, never mind the other journey purposes) and in ‘roads and other transport’. There is no consideration given to whether investment could be focused on making a dent in the 70% of journeys taken by car, let alone an objective to stabilise or event reduce traffic levels in the area (thinking back to the predicted growth in St Albans).
Another fleetingly addressed question is whether there is capacity on the national rail network for all these new commuters. Transport for London undertook an assessment of the investment needs for London, accounting for commuters from elsewhere in the UK, in a report called 2050. This research did not assume millions of homes would be built near train stations for commuters into cities like London. TfL identified £1.3 trillion of investment over the next forty years, including upgrading many of the main lines and building three new main lines into London, just to cope with the growing demand. Read the excellent London Reconnections analysis for some idea of the challenges. What would happen if you added hundreds of thousands of extra rail passengers coming from green belt homes?
The Centre for Cities report, like most in this genre, covers other topics like ecology and local services in a similarly peremptory and feeble way.
There is a reason that the National Planning Policy Framework runs to 76 pages. The planning system has to balance a wide range of factors – housing, the local economy, transport, agriculture, ecology, health, communications, good design, flooding, schools and other local services, sustaining town centres, to mention just a few! – and to draw these together in a way that promotes sustainable development. Applying this framework, local planning authorities rarely propose large scale homebuilding in their green belt near train stations.
By contrast, calls to ‘build homes near train stations in the green belt’ rarely reach beyond housing and some half-formed thoughts about local infrastructure.
The very idea is essentially a sop to environmentalists – if you want to build in the green belt you suggest doing it near train stations to ‘tick the box’ on the environment.
None of this is to necessarily rule out the idea of building homes near train stations. There may well be places where it’s a good idea, and can be well planned. New homes in St Albans, Watford and Bracknell could bring investment to make roads safer for walking and cycling and to improve bus services; homes could be built in locations, and at densities, and with street patterns, that discourage car usage; and so on.
But the ‘near train stations’ idea is just the wrong place to start. The question to explore is: are there locations in the green belt where you could build lots of homes and where you could plan them in a way that promotes sustainable development? That would consider the scope to reduce local traffic and congestion, enhance the local ecology, improve the viability of local town centres, and so on. It may be that ‘near this train station’ turns out to be a good location, but it equally may be that current train station locations are a minor consideration.
Every time someone starts with the ‘near train stations’ premise, they are – to my mind – signalling that they aren’t too interested in sustainable development, and just want to tick a box so they can focus on their main interest – huge housebuilding programmes in the green belt.
At a time when most acknowledge the climate emergency, isn’t it about time think tanks stopped making the simplistic call to build homes near train stations in the green belt?