Much of England and Wales reminds me of the Willamette Valley where I grew up: rolling hills covered with forests, farms, and cities. But Britain’s infrastructure would look completely out of place in most of the United States, being dominated by narrow roads and small houses. As an example of skinny roads, here’s a car parked in a small hamlet in Norfolk.
Parking in what Americans would consider the middle of the road, completely blocking one lane of traffic, is considered completely normal in Britain.
Because there is no parking strip and no shoulders, the car is blocking one entire lane, turning the two-lane road into a single-lane road. This is not unusual; auto drivers do this all the time everywhere from busy roads in resort areas to big cities. Parking appears to be first-come, first-served, so if someone parks on the north side of a street, no one will park on the south side (which would completely block the road) of that part of the street, but they might park on the south side a few car lengths away. The Antiplanner has already complained about the country’s narrow roads; the rest of today’s post will focus on housing.
Greetings from Frome (which rhymes with broom, not dome), Britain (which rhymes with ten, not plain). Last week the Antiplanner praised a “bicycle superhighway,” or what I would call a “bicycle boulevard,” that was set up in London. On Saturday, I got a taste of the rural version of this superhighway, but I was much less impressed.
The national cycle routes were set up by, or at least documented by, Sustrans (which presumably is short for “sustainable transportation”), a non-government (but partly government-funded) organization. On my ride from Brighton to Dover, I got to see and use some of National Cycle Route 3, one of more than 100 such routes in Britain.
Before describing the route, I have a bone to pick with Sustrans. The organization has a map of its routes on line, but it is made to not be easily copied, and is useless for detailed, on-the-ground directions. It sells paper maps, but as a cyclist, I don’t want to have to unfold a map everytime I come to a crossroads. It doesn’t make PDFs of its maps available, just paper. How sustainable is that?
The Antiplanner has spent the last week in Britain, and everywhere I went people were talking about Brexit: the vote in June on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Britain originally joined the union when it was a free-trade area, but since then it has grown increasingly intrusive on the economies of its member states.
While those intrusions are costly to Britain, the country’s biggest economic problem is self-inflicted: the housing crisis that makes Britain one of the least-affordable housing markets in the world. That crisis directly results from land-use laws passed to contain urban growth within specified boundaries. Since passing the first of these laws, the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, British housing has not only grown more expensive, the nation has experienced four housing bubbles and collapses.
Until 1860 or so, all of the land in Britain was owned by an aristocracy that made up less than 4.5 percent of the population. Today, more than 60 percent of families nominally own the land they live on, though I use the word “nominally” because the official position of the government remains that “The Crown is the ultimate owner of all land in England and Wales.” This probably refers to alloidal title, while individuals may own a fee-simple title or freehold.
Usually, The Economist lives up to its name in analyzing important issues. But it misses the point in its latest article on housing affordability. The article notes that the British government has set a target of building enough homes so that real housing prices rise only 1 percent faster than inflation.
That’s an idiotic target. First, why should housing prices rise faster than inflation at all? In a market unhampered by government regulation, housing prices will rise and fall with incomes, and rising incomes lead to higher prices because people buy bigger or more luxurious homes, not because homes themselves rise in price faster than inflation.
Second, the idea that government planning can control housing prices is as bad as the idea that government should plan housing in the first place. The government’s plan is to relax some housing regulation, which is good, and to subsidize new homes, which just transfers the burden from one group of people to another. What the government should do is get out of the way entirely.
Ever since the British parliament passed the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, housing in that nation has gotten less and less affordable. As a result, the average size of new homes today is only 925 square feet, down 44 percent from the average size in 1920. Meanwhile, the average size of new home in the United States in 2013 was 2,598 square feet, up 56 percent from 1,660 square feet forty years before.
Eric Pickles, Britain’s community secretary, blames the problem on “Labour policy, which decreed that at least 30 homes had to be built on every hectare of land” (about 12 per acre). But we know the problems go back well before the previous government, and the Tories had plenty of chances to reverse the policies in the Town & Country Planning Act.
Although the Daily Mail published this article just a few days ago, it is based on reports from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) that go back to at least 2011. RIBA has started a campaign aimed at having the government set minimum requirements for space and light in new homes.
The British Labour Party has what it thinks is a great idea: renationalize British rail operations. These were semi-privatized in the 1990s, leading to a huge increase in rail ridership–especially relative to passenger rail on the continent, where ridership is stagnant.
The Labour Party is following that quaint old socialist idea that profits are a waste and that government takeover would allow those wasted profits to be diverted into reduced fares and better services. They claim that nationalizing “would mean hundreds of millions currently lost in private profit would be available to fully fund a bold offer on rail fares.”
If this were true, then Amtrak, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, and pre-priviatization BritRail would all have generated plenty of revenues to fund their operations and maintenance. But they didn’t and don’t; instead, they require huge subsidies and even then offer poor service due to unfunded maintenance backlogs.
Land-use planning has made British housing so expensive that more than half of all homeowners expect to have to downsize the next time they move while only 22 percent expect to upsize. Home prices in Britain and other European countries with lots of land-use regulation tend to bubble as much as prices in California and other states with strict land-use rules.
This Swedish apartment building slated for demolition due to planners’ overbuild of multi-family housing looks a lot like many so-called transit-oriented developments recently built in Portland. Photo is from the Swedish “abandoned places web site.
Meanwhile, Swedish planners so overbuilt multifamily housing that, since 1995, they’ve had to demolish 20,000 units, and many more wait to be torn down. The apartments were built as part of what planners called the “million programme,” in which a million dwellings were to be built in the 1950s and 1960s. About 110,000 of these units were built in three- to eight-story apartment buildings during the 1950s and 1960s. They were so uniform and boring that, in 1971, people took to the streets to revolt against government policy and demanded the right to build and live in single-family homes. As a result, where before 1970 three out of four dwellings built in Sweden were multifamily, after 1970 three out of four were single family. Here are some photos of apartments waiting for demolition.
United Kingdom’s Department for Transportation is in trouble over a plan to transfer the franchise to run passenger trains over the London-Glasgow West Coast route from Virgin Trains (which is 49 percent owned by Stagecoach) to rival First Group. After fifteen years, Virgin Trains’ franchise is set to expire in December, and when the government put a new franchise up for bid, First Group had the low bid (meaning it asked for the least subsidies).
A Virgin Train. Photo by Andrew Butcher.
Virgin argued that having the low bid should not be the only factor in selecting a winner, and hired Europa Partners to evaluate the bidding process. The consultant’s report (a full version of which doesn’t seem to be available on line) argued that selecting the low bidder carried a high risk that the operator would go bankrupt, thus disrupting rail service.
The government awarded the contract to First Group anyway, leading Virgin to sue. Thanks in part to a timely appeal from Virgin’s Richard Branson to Prime Minister David Cameron, the government withdrew its award the night before it was supposed to defend it in court, saying that it had found irregularities in the bidding process, just as Europa had indicated. Now the government may be on the hook for millions of pounds to First Group, which says the reversal injured it and that its share value fell by 240 million pounds after the government withdrew the contract.