Our trains are driving young British fortunes – for better or worse

More young Brits than ever are spending their lives on trains due to the housing crisis & poor services could be the last straw for alienated millennials

Iona Bain

You only needed to log onto Twitter – and specifically observe the Piccadilly Line’s official feed – in recent weeks to get an insight into the frazzled mind of a millennial living and working in London today.

Reams of abusive tweets directed at the PL twitter account were eventually met with some rather terse put-downs from an (obviously quite green) TFL employee at the end of their tether. To stay polite in such circumstances – whichever side of the fence you’re on- is a mammoth task when you consider the continuous delays recently experienced on the line due to a shortage of trains, and how this is obviously driving many commuters to the edge of sanity.

Elsewhere, the farcical disputes currently dogging Southern Trains are incapacitating large swathes of the London workforce and having untold consequences for the millions of people who depend on these services every day. According to the Conservative MP Nick Herbert, one commuter had a job offer withdrawn, once her bosses realised she would be travelling to work on one of these chaotic routes, while others are cancelling essential cancer treatment in London hospitals because they can no longer rely on trains getting them to crucial appointments.

Of course, at the heart of this crisis is another crisis that has already transformed (or maybe disfigured?) London’s population beyond recognition. Our housing emergency has been the biggest social displacer of modern times. Recent research from London’s Goldsmiths University found that the traditional wealthy elite of London who used to swan around Mayfair, Chelsea and Hampstead are (broadly speaking) being pushed out by Russian and Saudi oligarchs, which has resulted in one high-end block of flats in Vauxhall being majority owned by wealthy foreign investors, most of whom are funding these purchases from tax havens and won’t step foot on British soil, let alone live in one of these gaffs. Nice!


So those at the top are shuffling into less gilded neighbourhoods that were once populated with the lower sections of London society, who in turn are forced to trickle downwards (and outwards), creating a huge Domino effect in which those at the bottom of the pile – our broke millennials doing more than their bit to keep the capital’s economy alive – are scrapping for the property leftovers. One friend, a 33 year old architect who spent five years looking for a home in London, saw the number of affordable areas diminish so rapidly that the only neighbourhood where he could buy a terraced home earlier this year was Walthamstow. You could say he was one of the lucky ones.

Young people looking to buy a home that will allow them to keep plugging away in London may find even the suburbs beyond their reach now, since the likes of Croydon have seen prices rise by 20 per cent over the last year. The last resort for anyone who resents propping up London’s overpriced rental market (and getting no financial benefit in return) is to buy in places like Essex and Kent, where prices are not in the realms of make-believe, and put up with a longer journey into work.

Unfortunately, this puts an unprecedented strain on our train services. A two hour commute is now the norm for 3.7 million workers, the vast majority of whom orbit around London, according to the Office for National Statistics. At the same time, they are paying more and more for the privilege, with rail prices set to rise by 2.3 per cent next year on average.

This will, at some point, start to show in London’s economic performance. The cracks are already starting to appear with price rises slowing in quite a marked fashion in London since the E.U. referendum in June, meaning the overall property market for the capital has NOT outperformed the rest of the country for the first time in…well, bloody ages. Tenants are turning away from the rental market in greater numbers, according to the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors, and Savills reckons that as many as 66,000 older millennials left the capital last year (an 18 per cent rise among 35 – 39 year olds in the past two years). Many properties in the capital have had to slash their asking prices by 30 per cent.

Of course, we know the continuing shortage of housing, and the skew-wiff ratio of supply to demand, will mean that London property prices are unlikely to go bargain basement. But how can you escape the conclusion that London property being used as a foreign currency reserve instead of  homes for the people who power the city is eventually going to take its toll both on the property market and more importantly, the country’s economy as a whole?

However, London is not the only corner of dysfunction in Britain’s housing market. Oxford is actually becoming MORE expensive than the capital, with Cambridge giving it a very close run for its money. Both cities are, in essence, victims of their own economic success (like London). Posh universities aside, Oxbridge is fast becoming a world-class hub for bio and tech innovation, both huge employers in the local area that keep demand for property buoyant. However, supply is thin on the ground; only 50 new homes were built in Oxford in 2014 due to green-belt and flood-plain restrictions. But this status quo just isn’t sustainable; house prices in Cambridge are now 17 times the average salary, up from 14 times last year. Sadly, we’re also seeing omens of the foreign land-grab already messing up London’s property market in both Oxford and Cambridge, with Chinese demand up since the Brexit vote on account of our weak pound.

It’s one reason, I think, why the government is so enthusiastic about investing in the likes of HS2 and the Varsity Line, which I discussed in the Times earlier this year. A route between Oxford and Cambridge, which was confirmed by Chancellor Hammond’s recent Autumn Statement, is not so much about building connections between the two cities but allowing young talent who are priced out of them to live elsewhere.

That means more young employees discovering the likes of Bicester, Bedford and Milton Keynes…and becoming ever more tied to rail services in the process. If those services are becoming too expensive, disorderly and flaky to be of real use, what will be the ramifications for our urban economies? Productivity (already a massive economic headache) could become an even greater drag on business growth while the appetite for flexible working will surely only get stronger.

Investing in rail services is a pretty handy sticking plaster for our housing woes. Instead of addressing the supply shortfall (and foreign takeover of London’s property market) in any significant way, we can disperse our workforce into less heated pockets of the housing market and just hope our trains can take the weight of that decision. For those who don’t commute everyday, who pick areas showing some genuine signs of economic growth and (most importantly) choose lines that can get you from A to B pretty much on time, this phenomenon won’t prove to be so bad.

For everyone else…best of British luck to you.


This Post Has One Comment

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    The people working on min wage/zero hour/both are at the bottom of the pile rather than just ‘millennials’. Other than that, good article.

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