Rural stations are the key to building 1.2m homes in the right places

In an effort to address the housing crisis, I mapped every railway station in England and used publicly-accessible data to show that 777 of them have development potential

Perhaps we’ve been desensitised to the stark realities of the housing crisis, with the ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude of the baby boomer generation (which, we need to remember, lived through very little genuine hardship in the post-war years) prevailing. But in other any functional democracy where 3.6 million young adults remained at home due to generational housing inequality, this would be a national scandal. According to some estimates, we are millions of homes short of where a country with our population should be.

The fact that none of the mainstream parties have yet to articulate a plan to address this crisis is a damning indictment of current political discourse. Not only is this a social failure, it’s an economic one too. Productivity in the UK is woefully low, with young people unable to relocate to where jobs are, or otherwise struggling with extended commutes. Worse still, a generation is delaying starting families as housing costs, employment precarity and overcrowding threaten to detonate a demographic time-bomb which nobody seems willing to defuse.

I live on the northern fringes of London, the final stop before the railway plunges into the capital’s green belt. In less than 30 minutes I can be in central London, on one of six or more trains that run every hour. There are many similar lines that extend out of London, providing convenient access both to the city and countryside for those who live close to them. It’s difficult to think of more appropriate locations for new homes.

Resistance to urban expansion is often (rightly) based on a fear of perpetuating low-density, car-dependent sprawl on the outskirts of our rural towns and villages. So it follows that, in order to create new homes less dependent on private vehicle ownership, we should instead look to optimise development around existing public transport networks. But how many homes might we build? And where?

Using various publicly-accessible data sources, I mapped every train station in England and examined the constraints on development around each. Anywhere at risk of flooding was excluded, as was land within national parks, existing urban areas, or those sites protected by landscape designations because of their quality or scientific interest. Green belt, though, I considered fair game: regardless of what the CPRE claims, it’s increasingly clear that we cannot deliver the homes we need on brownfield alone, and a pragmatic review of green belt policy is long overdue. Drawing an 800m radius around each station (equivalent to a 10 minute walk) and extracting constraints, I arrived at a pleasing 777 stations with development potential.

Not every one is close to a population centre, and some are used by only a handful of passengers each year. As there’s no easy method of measuring current or potential frequency of service, I pegged target densities to passenger annual numbers. Those stations closest to major cities were assigned 75 homes per hectare, those in remote areas much less. But even at modest densities this reveals a huge potential for delivering the new homes we need.

A case in point: Ashwell & Morden sits mid-way between London and Cambridge, with frequent services to both. Yet look at it on Google Maps and you’ll see the station is surrounded by little more than open fields. It’s not even in the green belt of either city. Even at modest densities, this site could accommodate 7,000 homes for some 30,000 people. Development of this scale, supported by a decent masterplan and robust design coding, could provide social infrastructure and sustainable travel for residents. And rolling out a similar approach to the rest of the country could be transformational in providing high-quality homes in sustainable locations such as this.

The familiar complaint from those in comfortable circumstances that we risk ‘concreting over the countryside’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when – even with these additional numbers – we’d lose less than 0.4 per cent of England’s rural space in the process (Britain’s roads take up around three times this area).

The coming general election could be a turning point in whether we take genuine steps to address generational inequality, particularly in respect of housing delivery. Building homes around rural stations won’t go the whole way to achieving this but, combined with other bold ideas, it could play a part.

This article was originally published in the Architects’ Journal.