Musings on housing and transport

It seems like an obvious thing to say in that housing and transport issues have had a major impact on my life. They have for most of us, though the extent of that impact – and how angry we become because of it are the variables that are different for all of us.

Spending over £5,000 on commuting during my final two years in the civil service having had to move back in with my parents after racking up an unsustainable hole in my finances after two years living in London really focused my mind on the issues of housing and transport in terms of solutions, rather than just getting angry about living in skanky properties in Brighton and having to put up with dangerous slam-door trains used by what was Connex South-Central on one of the busiest rail franchises that allowed them effectively to print money at the expense of the rest of us.

Some of the politicians who were responsible for that debacle are still around today – Stephen Dorrell MP – now Chair of the Health Select Committee and Sir George Young MP, currently Leader of the House. Yes chaps, the screw up that was rail privatisation has got your finger prints all over it.

That’s not to say Labour were any better at sorting things out. As Andrew – later Lord Adonis is quoted as saying/writing:

“In 2009, I became the fifth transport secretary in barely three years. In my previous three-and-a-half years as schools minister, I served under three secretaries of state in a department renamed and reorganised twice. This is no way to run the country.”

Prior to all of that, we had the various reorganisations of the then Deputy Prime Minister’s empire which between 1997-2007 managed to morph from being the Department for the Environment, the Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions, the Department for Transport, London and the Regions, The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and then the Department for Communities and Local Government. (Or these days, Department for Criticising Local Government, depending on which side of the fence you sit on). How anyone can expect to have anything approaching policy consistency when there are regular ministerial reshuffles and regular restructures of the machinery of government is beyond me.

Thus both of the main parties have got form when it comes to major screw ups both policy and administration-wise on housing and transport.

Housing, transport, food and utilities (gas, electric, water, communications (phone etc) in my experience have been the essentials that have drained money away – aside from things like interest & loan repayments and spending on consumables (such as uber-fashionable clothes and alcohol – which, although nice to have don’t really fall under the ‘essentials’ category)

On housing and transport issues, why are we as a country (and they as a political establishment) getting so much so badly wrong? Take London’s empty mansions. It’s all very well in principle for people to say that what others do with their money is no business of the state, so long as what they do is within the law. The problem with a ‘commodity’ like housing – especially in somewhere like London – is that its supply is very limited. One person having lots of houses and not using them has a knock-on impact. Lots of people having even more houses that are being left empty (for whatever reason) subsequently has a huge impact on our towns and cities to the extent that it makes lives for everyone else that much more difficult.

If people cannot live close to their place of work, they have to commute. And we as a country spend a lot of time commuting – 21 million hours according to the TUC in 2009. Why should this be a problem? I spent three hours a day, five days a week in my final two years in the civil service commuting.

  • The costs alone are staggering – I would rather spend that £5,000+ on something far more productive than overcrowded and overpriced trains.
  • The time spent commuting – every minute spent on a train is a minute not spent at work or not spent with families or doing something more productive or more enjoyable. The only being that seemed to have benefited from my long commutes was Puffles the baby dragon fairy, because long commutes meant lots of tweeting time on the train.
  • Impact on health – the difference between commuting from Cambridge to London, and the 20 minute cycle ride from my old house to place of work in Cambridge prior to my transfer down to London was in the region of…about three stone. Yes, I was able to exercise far more (both getting to work, going to evening classes and events and back) than with the commute
  • Impact on social life – in a nutshell, when I returned to Cambridge I found that trying to sustain anything in the way of a social life was extremely hard work. It got to the stage where I’d sometimes despair of the living to work lifestyle interspersed with weekends that would be spent asleep just trying to catch up on what I’d missed during the week.
  • Impact on well-being – commuting is stressful. My way of dealing with it was a bizarre mixture of tweeting and music through big noise-cancelling headphones. The combination of huge headphones plus sunglasses probably frightened a few people too, especially with commute-autopilot-scowl etched across my face.
  • Impact on productivity – combine all of the above and you don’t get the most productive, effective or efficient workforce. I can’t be the only one who thinks they’d be better at what they do during the day with a much shorter commute…can I?
Then there’s issues of housing – for which anyone who has lived in substandard housing will be able to tell you about the devastating impact such housing can have. You’ve seen the ‘landlords from hell’ style programmes and may well have winced at some of the conditions that people have to put up with.
I used to live in one such hell hole. It was eventually condemned by the council at the end of my second year of university and we all had to move out. Chances are I’d have had a much more productive second year at university if I hadn’t ended up in such a place. This was also a time when university was a 1 hour bus commute across town each way. (This was also the time when my mental health problems were kicking in too).  

Taking all of the above into consideration, my take is that society has to ask itself whether it can afford to allow the state of affairs to continue – and if not, what are the alternatives? 

I can’t pretend to have a fully-fleshed out policy alternative. The policy areas of housing and transport are far too complex. There are also far too many vested interests in both fields who currently do more than very well in the current circumstances. That said, I have often asked a number of open questions, such as:

  • What would the impact be on our public transport system if more people were able to live much closer to their places of work?
  • What would the impact be on our communities if more people needed to spend less time commuting?
  • What would the impact be on our health services if people did not need to spend so much time on their commute – whether due to the distances or the traffic jams?
  • How much more settled and sustainable would our communities be if people didn’t spend so much time travelling too and from places of work and/or education?
  • If people were able to invest both more time and money in their own communities in terms of actions and activities, what impact would this have on things like civic institutions to levels of crime?
I know much of this article contains a huge amount of wishful pie in the sky thinking, but I get like that sometimes. 

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