Cllr Charles Roberts is the Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and the Deputy Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
We all know that we have a housing crisis in our country. If current trends continue, millions of young people will never achieve their dream of home ownership. This isn’t just a crisis for those who are unable to realise their dreams, it’s also a political crisis for the Conservative Party. Those who own their own home are overwhelmingly more likely to vote Conservative therefore it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a declining level of home-owners does nothing to increase the number of people who are prepared to vote Conservative.
What is less commented upon but also widely appreciated is that we have big problems when it comes to ensuring that we have transport infrastructure fit for the twenty first century, both road and rail.
It’s also clear to me that both our housing challenge and our transport challenge are strongly linked. Why are so many of our roads so congested and our trains so packed? Why was it announced earlier this month that rail fares will be going up by 3.4 per cent? The answer is partly due to escalating house prices and rent levels in our key employment centres with more and more working people having to live further away from where they work and spending more time travelling to work, whether by road or rail.
Over the past decade the proportion of working people spending more than three hours commuting to work every day has increased by 75%. One survey shows that between 2004-2014 the number of people spending more than two hours travelling to work every day has gone up by 103 per cent in the South East, 102 per cent in the South West and 55 per cent in the East. Things are only likely to have got worse since.
Of course, we all know that there are a huge number of people who work in London but can’t afford to live there and as a consequence commute on a daily basis. However, we also have a problem here in Cambridgeshire; after London, Cambridge isn’t far behind when it comes to housing not being affordable. Again this is largely to do with Cambridge like London being a jobs engine and surrounded by green belt. Over the next decade alone the Greater Cambridge economy is scheduled to create a further 44,000 jobs meaning that the problem of rising house prices and rents will only be made worse unless we are able to come up with solutions.
A consequence of the Cambridge property market overheating is more and more people who work in Cambridge looking to towns and villages nearby to live. Ely has grown significantly over the past ten years as a direct result of the overheating leading to a significant increase in house prices meaning that many of the people who work in Ely can no longer afford to live there. What we are seeing here is an endless cycle of displacement. A cycle where more and more people cannot afford to live in the place where they work and as a consequence spend more and more of their own time and money travelling to and from work.
What are the consequences of this cycle? It is undoubtedly negative. Instead of spending quality time with friends and family, millions of working people are having to spend hours on packed trains and congested roads. The King’s Cross to Cambridge line for example is the second most crowded service in the country. On average 426 people cram into each service when it has an official passenger capacity of 202.
In 2014 the Office for National Statistics produced an in depth study looking the impact of increasing levels of commuting on personal wellbeing. The study clearly demonstrates the link between the time someone spends travelling to work every day and their level of anxiety. There is also the financial cost on the individuals and families, for example the recent increases in the cost of rail season tickets means that it now costs over £3,000 for a season ticket between Maidenhead and London.
What is often overlooked however is the economic cost of working people having to spend more and more time travelling to work. More time and money spent travelling to and from work means less time and money to spend on cultural and leisure pursuits within the community within which they live, meaning there is a clear negative impact for local economies.
There are also the consequences of this cycle for the productivity of our workforce. Barely a day goes past when I don’t read a newspaper article about the productivity challenge facing this country. Though there was positive news earlier this month with regard to productivity the challenges remain significant.
The average British worker is 35% less productive per hour than their German counterpart and in 2015 we lagged behind the OECD productivity average by 18%; in 2007 the figure was 9%. I struggle to see how British workers having to spend more and more time travelling to and from work is going to help this situation. Increasing numbers of tired and demotivated workers is going to do nothing to boost Britain PLC.
So, what can we do to tackle this cycle? House building in key hot spots like London and Cambridge is clearly one response. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority will be investing £70 million in Cambridge over the next three years to provide affordable housing. Investing in our transport infrastructure to enable people to get around more easily is also a necessary response.
Anyone paying attention to developments in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough over the past six months would surely have noticed Mayor James Palmer’s determination to overhaul transport infrastructure in our part of the world. However, in my view, these actions alone will not be sufficient to break the cycle. Just the provision of more homes won’t solve the problem. The current economic dynamics will always lead to displacement and the cycle of people having to live further and further away from where they work will never be broken.
We need to find a way of using planning policy to prioritise new homes, across all tenures (affordable, shared and open market) for those who work locally. We need to find a way of linking the availability of new homes to place of work. In East Cambridgeshire we have already done this for affordable rental homes through the Community Land Trust model and holding properties in a trust. The Stretham CLT that I chair has a “live and work locally” policy at the heart of its allocations. However, what we haven’t done in Cambridgeshire is look at how this approach could be tied to open market housing through covenant. There are already examples of where we limit the availability of some open market housing to certain people. For example, retirement properties are only available to those of retirement age, and agricultural occupancy conditions allow only those earning their living from agriculture. Clearly there needs to be a degree of flexibility with it, perhaps only being in the first instance where a particularly property is limited to those who work locally.
I appreciate that such significant interventions in the property market and planning system might not sit comfortably with all free market Conservatives. However, if we’re to break the cycle of people having to live further and further away from where they work we need to be prepared to think outside the box. The current approach is not working. Fresh thinking is required. There is a clear economic need for us to do things differently but more importantly there is a need for us to consider the kind of the country we want to live in and the kind of lifestyles we lead.
I for one don’t want my children’s only hope of getting on the property ladder to be conditional on them being prepared to spend increasing amounts of their lives on packed trains and spending more and more money for the privilege when they could be spending quality time with friends and family. This is about the country we live in and the one we want to pass on to future generations.