Tuesday, February 25, 2014

HS2: More Twists on the Roller-Coaster

Adam Engineering, Camden Town

Businesses along the route of the proposed HS2 – HS1 high speed rail link through Camden Town may soon have cause to celebrate.

According to the Camden New Journal, a review due to be published next month is likely to recommend scrapping the link between the new Euston - Birmingham line and the HS1 Eurostar service, which would have caused massive disruption to local businesses - stall-holders and shop-keepers in the the hugely popular Camden Lock market, car repair workshops, small engineering firms (pictured) and many more.

If confirmed, it would be a welcome twist on the roller-coaster ride on which local residents and businesses have become unwilling passengers. But HS2 proposals with potentially devastating consequences appear to come and go on a whim. Recent comments by Chancellor George Osborne to the Evening Standard suggest that a firm decision on the re-development of Euston Station, made last April, is about to be reversed. At the time the current plans were described by Camden council leader Sarah Hayward as “a shed being bolted on to an existing lean-to”, but now Osborne apparently wants to make a bigger splash: "I'm thinking that maybe we should go for a really big redevelopment of Euston. There is a really big opportunity for jobs and for housing in the area."

D&J Motors, Camden Town

 We can make a pretty good guess at what this might entail, because it has happened here before: the existing 112 mile Euston – Birmingham track was the first inter-city line into London. It opened in 1838, and the chaos its construction caused in Camden Town was vividly described by Charles Dickens in his novel Dombey and Son, published ten years later:

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. ….. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. …. In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.”

Osborne's proposal, also supported by London Mayor Boris Johnson, is likely to wreak similar havoc on the area, and on the lives of those who live and work in it. And while it may also offer increased regeneration potential to the Euston area, it will be seized on by critics who believe that the £53 billion scheme is likely to bring greater economic returns to the capital than to the northern cities it is supposedly designed to benefit.  More pictures here; more on HS2 here and here.

Transauto Garage, Camden Town

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Market Failures

The Guardian's exposé of the extraordinary state of 'Billionaire's Row' – The Bishops Avenue in north London – is yet another reminder of just how dysfunctional the UK housing market has become. Mansions worth together around £350 million are lying empty (above), many decaying into serious dereliction, whilst the government's 'bedroom tax' is forcing large numbers of those at the other end of the 'property ladder' to quit the capital, often leaving behind family, friends, schools and job opportunities.

Boris Johnson's answer? To charge owners of empty properties worth over £2 million a 50% Council Tax surcharge. Or maybe 150%. The Mayor isn't very good on detail. That should really hit the owners hard. The rate for the top Council Tax band in Barnet is £2832.40, so the surcharge would be either £1416.20, or £4248.60, depending on what he means. One of the Bishops Avenue mansions, Dryades, until recently the property of the Pakistan Minister of Privatisation (clearly a post with a generous salary), was bought for £12 million in 2007 and, according to the Guardian, is currently believed to be worth £30 million. That's a profit of £18 million in seven years, or just over £2.5 million a year. A few thousand pounds of Council Tax isn't going to make much of a dent in that.

Interventions by this and previous governments aimed at addressing failures at the opposite end of the market have been no better. The other streets where boarded-up houses lie empty, and bulldozed vacant lots stand unattended, are the result of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme in Oldham (below), Liverpool and several other northern cities, started by Labour and prematurely shutdown by the coalition. Both bad decisions.

The abysmal record of government interventions at both ends of the property market highlights the failure of market-based solutions to a problem that requires social and economic planning, not blind faith in the beneficence of laissez-faire profiteering. More pictures here.