England is missing out on a generation of new rail-oriented housing development

Planning new homes around rail transport is not working

Planning new homes around rail transport is not working

Working for Transport for New Homes, I co-authored the Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality report with Jenny Raggett. Transport for New Homes is a project of the Foundation for Integrated Transport that seeks to understand why new homes are being built around car dependence and not walking, cycling and public transport.

The report looks at the transport provision for new housing developments in England promoted as garden towns and garden villages. This distinction is an important one, as ‘garden community’ status is only given if a proposal meets government criteria set out in the Garden Community Prospectus. It also means that government funding can be unlocked to provide vital infrastructure, including rail transport.

Overwhelmingly we found the transport infrastructure unlocked by this status was major roads. We found very little on walking, cycling or public transport. Aspirations for mass rapid transit and other sustainable transport infrastructure was present in the visions and proposals, but the funding to make it happen just wasn’t there.

We believe the 20 garden towns and villages we looked at could create up to 200,000 car dependent households. In total more than fifty developments have now secured garden town or garden village status.

A number of visions for garden villages and garden towns touted better rail or mentioned that there was a small station nearby that could be made into a transport hub. Others wanted a station opened. A new light rail link was even suggested to provide for mass transit for a large garden development some miles from Reading.

Developers know that rail is very popular with potential residents of new homes. However, planning applications showed that developers and local authorities found the procedure for getting a new station or existing one approved that they kicked the plans into the long grass.

Another problem we found was that land offered up for development by landowners was too far from a station nearby. We found some were near or adjacent to operational railway lines, but are proposed too far from existing stations to make them useful for new residents.

Even those we found with a station were typically on the outskirts so the development could not be planned around a central railway hub. This meant that many homes were too far from the station to make walking to it a viable option. With the absence of safe cycle routes and a street layout that hindered direct utility walking we came to the conclusion the opportunity has been missed to design out car dependence in these new communities.

The situation was also disappointing for developments proposed near freight lines or former railway corridors that could be reopened. Despite all the talk of Reverse Beeching, we found that little progress had been made in providing new rail services to the new housing that was proposed.

Our research into the funding reinforced this. The Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) is meant to unlock new housing by providing missing infrastructure. We discovered the transport portion of approximately £1bn is being spent almost exclusively on new road buildings in the form of motorway junctions, bypasses and ring toads. Outside London, we found the entire rail spend from the HIF was used on a single station in Chelmsford.

The focus for our research was outside London, but we observed that in the capital something was happening to make rail and housing connect together. Examples of rail-led development are the perhaps well-known Barking Riverside on the new London Overground extension and the newer development at Beam Park being built around a new station on the Fenchurch Street line. In both cases the central location of the station is being exploited to create a vibrant centre with a square and mix of amenities, well integrated into the development.

The density of London means that rail spend will always come out better in a cost benefit analysis than elsewhere in England, but something more than that was happening here. The presence of Transport for London (TfL), an all-purpose transport authority with rail operation experience is missing elsewhere in the country and this clearly helped these rail developments along.

The governance of TfL is the Mayor of London, who is also land owner of these sites and the strategic planning authority of Greater London. This meant that these sites benefited from the secret sauce of the same entity being multiple actors in the development process. Quite simply there was the practical ability as well as the will to ensure housing was planned around and with railway infrastructure and services.

Back to outside London, we think the tentative attempts to get railway stations built has meant the new developments are completely out of sync with the timescales of railway planning. This has a cost because the new residents will become car dependent from day one of occupation of their new homes. It is difficult to attract rail commuters if the railway station is merely a speculative dot on a promotional map.

We also found an apparent lack of understanding of railway operation on the part of development promoters. The aspirations for new stations on lines that are already at capacity is unrealistic, especially for a new station serving a settlement of just a few thousand homes. Elsewhere the homes are being built on or near rural lines with very low frequencies or not on the route to the nearest major employment centre and will therefore have limited appeal for commuters.

The Government prospectus for garden towns and garden villages talks about new developments being transformative for communities. The only way this is going to happen for rail is if new or reopened lines, stations and services are planned very early in the development process and are in sync with railway infrastructure planning. Crucially, the money for these projects must be available from the outset. If the government was really committed to decarbonising transport we’d see every new housing development built around rail.

This piece originally appeared in Rail Professional