15 Jan 2008

Eco Homes, Immigrants and Trains: thought for the day

Interesting to see some of the ideas I have been exploring in this blog over the past year are beginning to receive a wider audience. First an article by John Rentoul in the Independent daring to challenge the idea that building more homes will make housing cheaper.

Then the Sunday Express covers the same story on its front page, but from an immigrant bashing angle. You’ll have to take my word for it because I can’t be bothered to trawl their website for a link. This isn’t essentially an anti-immigrant story, but immigraton does play a part in it because undoubtedly a country with 28 million homes is going to be a more attractive place to move to than one with 25 million, and so 3 million new homes will tend to accelerate the rate of immigration. It’s, if you like, an unintended consequence of a big housebuilding programme.

There is another unintended consequence as well, outlined by Jared Diamond in the New York Times. The carbon footprint of immigrants tends to expand dramatically when they move from a relatively poor country to a relatively rich one, for obvious reasons. Therefore however eco these eco homes may be in their built form, the impact of someone moving into Britain from somewhere less affluent is to increase overall carbon emissions by a wide margin. And that’s without the love miles effect of frequent trips made back to the old country to see the family.

Which brings me onto my final point for the day: the resulting strain on the transport infrastructure caused by new housebuilding. This was brought home to me graphically at the weekend when one of my golf buddies, Steve Gaastra, was describing the hell that is commuting from Cambridge to London by train. The service, for which you pay over £6,000 a year for, is already stretched to breaking point, standing room only at peak times. “It’s no better than a cattle truck: hot, steamy and really unpleasant,” he said. He’s only been doing this commute for a few weeks and already he is looking for a flat to rent in London so he can avoid this twice-daily trauma.

This train service, which is reckoned to be the busiest in Britain, already runs half hourly throughout the day and, because it has to share the East Coast mainline for part of its route, it is already working at full capacity. It is very difficult to see how the carriage congestion could be eased any further, other than charging even more money for a standing place – i.e. rationing by price.

Yet flats around Cambridge station are still being marketed as being “just 45 minutes from Kings Cross.” And of course Cambridge is set to play host to another 25,000 homes over the coming 12 years. All of these new housing estates will be designed with a view to discouraging car use and with the promise of excellent public transport systems being in place as an alternative. But with one of the key links out of the city already full to bursting point, and with little hope of any improvement in sight, the cynical thought crops up that we are just being sold down the river on this one. Just where is everyone going to fit?


  1. I'd like to add a couple of comments to your piece about commuting from Cambridge.

    The first is just a piece of information. It is easy 'to see how the carriage congestion could be eased any further'. Several (many?) years ago, the platforms on the route were extended to take 12 coach trains and indeed some were run. I believe the operator is now looking at reinstating them but the question is why it has taken so long.

    My second comment is more of an opinion, which is that the real answer is not to commute that distance, as your friend has decided. There's not much point in sustainable housing and renewable energy if the savings are blown on long-distance commuting! Unless and until we have sustainable transport, we need to reduce transport miles.

    Cheers, Dave

  2. Dave,

    That's an interesting point about longer trains. I assumed they were already working at maximum length, but I suppose they could be extended to be half a mile long eventually.

    As for the second point, I think you are being fanciful. It's only 50 miles from Cambridge to London. That hardly counts as a long commute and many people with specialist skills have to be prepared to travel great distances in order to seek employment. Owning or renting two properties is probably even less sustainable than commuting, and moving house every time you take a job change is not a great idea either. What if you work in two different places? As indeed Steve did in his last job - Camberley and Manchester. His work involves him working medium term contracts for three or four years at most and always in different locations.

    The answer must be not to stop people travelling, but to find ways of getting them from A to B without burning fossil fuels.

  3. I wrote: "Unless and until we have sustainable transport, we need to reduce transport miles".

    You replied "As for the second point, I think you are being fanciful. ... The answer must be not to stop people travelling, but to find ways of getting them from A to B without burning fossil fuels".

    I hope you're right that I'm being fanciful. I think we actually agree about most of it.

    The only difference is that you're assuming we can solve that problem. I'm just saying that to the best of my knowledge we do not yet even know whether the problem can be solved, let alone how.

    Cheers, Dave