Getting railway development back on track
Chris Fry, managing director of planning and sustainability consultancy Temple, says we need to be bold and imaginative in developing railway land for new housing.
In the run up to the November Spending Review, the Treasury has written to government departments demanding they identify how they will sell surplus public sector land to raise money and release land for house building.
The Ministry of Defence is an obvious target, but we should not though overlook the railway, which has more than 122,000 hectares of land in England alone and already has some notable regeneration successes under its belt, such as at King’s Cross, Stratford in east London, and Sheffield.
But those cases are few and far between across an asset base that includes 2,537 stations across the UK. The potential is therefore very significant, but even with the new impetus from the Treasury, are the conditions right to make the most of this opportunity for urban and rural communities alike?
The idea of maximising the potential of stations and railway land through “oversite development” and wider regeneration is not new. We can also look internationally to Hong Kong’s MTR rail and property programme, Copenhagen’s metro development corporation and the San Francisco Transbay redevelopment.
Closer to home, Crossrail has integrated 12 major property developments over and around its stations to deliver more than 3 million square feet of office, retail and residential space between Paddington and Woolwich.
There are also interesting parallels from other public utility sectors that provide some inspiration, such as Berkeley Group’s St James joint venture with Thames Water, established as long ago as 1996, and now its new St Williams venture with National Grid. The latter aims to begin its first brownfield development in 2016.
Network Rail did make some progress with this agenda in 2008 by establishing Solum Regeneration, which has delivered a small number of mixed-used development projects in locations such as at Christchurch, Epsom and Walthamstow stations. There are a few others in the pipeline in London and the south east, and Capco has recently acquired Kier Properties’ share in Solum Regeneration.
Crossrail has integrated property developments around its stations
Beyond that, there are various development opportunities associated with major rail infrastructure investments, including at Old Oak Common, where a Mayoral Development Corporation has been set up with the specific purpose of using the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of investment in HS2 and Crossrail to develop an exemplar community and new centre in north-west London”.
A necessary prerequisite for any scaling up of railway land development is to plan for the future potential operational needs of railway land and buildings for freight and passenger rail services, which may itself be a complex task. And simply releasing more land is of course not enough. There is little point in generating a quick financial return and missing the wider opportunities, particularly as most of this land is connected to stations and other “going concern” assets in their functions as community buildings and transport interchanges.
So what are the key ingredients for more sustainable railway land redevelopment? First, a consideration of place. The railway asset owners and operators, or those working on their behalf, will need to think beyond the railway in terms of physical boundaries, as well as making visual and functional connections. Well-thought-through masterplanning based on a wide-ranging understanding of the community needs, as well as the commercial and technical constraints and opportunities, should help to address this.
Second, we need a reasonable dose of future gazing. Major development projects are likely to have short-term pain (in terms of disruption, construction noise and dust pollution) that needs to be managed as well as long-term gain for local communities.
And the needs of passengers and communities are likely to evolve over time with demographic changes or environmental drivers such as the need for greater climate resilience leading to green infrastructure solutions.
The speed of change in passenger and household behaviour facilitated by technology should also not be overlooked. Everything from wi-fi, journey planning apps, e-commerce and building scale decentralised energy technologies to the emerging concept of the “Digital Railway” add a further twist to these future developments.
But these are all issues where we are capable of finding solutions. So if the Treasury is looking for more public land disposals, increased housing output and strengthened, sustainable communities, we believe that Network Rail’s portfolio of underused railway land is a promising place to start.