Recently I wrote about the Church of England’s poor record as a landowner in increasing the housing supply – despite being keen to denounce the Government. The Church is quite right to say that overcrowding and homelessness are not only political and economic issues, but moral challenges. The difficulty comes when the Church then fails to set a good example. But this was not meant to let the Government off the hook. There is hypocrisy here as well. While complaining about “land banking” from property developers, the state is the biggest land banker of all.
So I am writing a series on some of the worst offenders. We will start with Network Rail – an “arms length public body” of the Department of Transport. A spokesman tells me:
“Network Rail owns a significant amount of land – approximately 51,700 hectares (127,800 acres), which it uses to operate and develop Britain’s railway infrastructure; that’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and the thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. We run 20 of the UK’s largest stations and own the land on which these and all of the other 2,500 stations in Britain sit on.
“All Network Rail land is classed as part of our operational estate. To release land for housing and development, we need to go through a consultation process to ensure that the land we are releasing is not required for future railway related, or other relevant stakeholder use.
“Network Rail has committed to releasing land for homes nationally to support the government’s housing goal of building 1.5 million homes between 2015 and 2022. We are committed to releasing land for around 12,000 homes by 2020.”
The average density of homes is around 12 per acre. So that makes the maths conveniently simple. 12,000 homes would mean around 1,000 of the 127,800 acres to be sold. Of course, 12,000 new homes helps. But in relative terms, it is completely derisory.
That phrase “we need to go through a consultation process to ensure that the land we are releasing is not required for future railway related, or other relevant stakeholder use” seems to mean in practice that they will only sell land if they feel like it. In theory, it should be a decision about what Government owned land to sell should be a decision for the Government. In practice, Network Rail has shown utter contempt for any accountability. The mentality is that the tiny contribution they have agreed to make is doing the Government a favour.
Sir Oliver Letwin was the Minister responsible, and recounts his struggle with them in his entertaining memoir of his time as a Minister in the Cameron Government. They would sit at a desk “pondering a map of some piece of land that was quite clearly of no use to the railway at all”, but the Network Rail officials would insist that it “might at some later date be used by the railway for some purpose that they couldn’t quite yet put their finger on.”
The situation is absurd. Did Sir Oliver not get proper backing from the Department of Transport? Or did Network Rail decide that with its “arms length” status it could ignore everybody? If Ministers do not have the power to order the release surplus state land, then Parliament should grant them such powers.
It is a genuine scandal. Yet, as I will detail tomorrow, there are other branches of the public sector that are even worse…