Anyone striding along London’s streets will notice the amount of railway land that has gone through decades of urban change relatively untouched. In a city that is short of space, it would make sense to engineer a deck that can support new streets, homes and shops over train tracks – an urban planner’s dream.
Indeed, the potential seems huge. Transport for London owns land the size of the entire borough of Camden, and while not all of this is railway, it does not include the land on which national and other commuter services run, which is owned by Network Rail. So what is holding us back? Our recent Centre for London report seeks to unpick these issues.
Building above London’s stations, and train tracks in general, is very costly – usually twice or three times as much as decking over motorways. This is partly because the city’s busy railway network offers little space for engineering and building works near tracks, while London’s underground is crowded with essential utilities, and other tube lines.
The estimated costs we quote in our report illustrate the point: engineering a deck above a busy central London station would probably cost between £150m-£250m (and at least £75m for a quieter zone 2-3 station). At that price, developers often choose to purchase land near stations, to have more certainty around possible costs, and future profit.
Wow, look at all that land. Image: Centre for London.
Yet, if there’s a city where land values should make station development possible, shouldn’t London be it? Revenue from sales may not meet the costs of engineering land, but development schemes yield large income streams over the long term. And some benefit the public sector: rents (paid to station owners), business rates or council tax (paid to local authorities), and Stamp Duty (paid to central government).
Adding these up would dwarf even the high costs of over-station development – but the problem is that these future revenues are rarely brought together. This severely restricts the ability of developers, Transport for London or Network Rail to embark on more ambitious projects to transform our railway lands. Even some stations that were designed to support a building above (Southwark and Bermondsey) may only see development more than 20 years after their opening.
So we must be more strategic about station opportunities – Transport for London has grown its development team from 5 to 30 people in the last two years, in order to trawl its land holdings and facilitate development on them. The mayor can also decide to acquire land on either side of stations to facilitate decking, or to make station schemes more viable. Alongside this, the mayor needs to be able to respond to opportunities where they appear, for instance by making sure that Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo Line extension plan in structures that can withstand development above tracks. But it will be difficult for London Government to make over-station development work without more local power over the tax revenues mentioned above.
Even where over-station development is not viable, London should focus much more intensely on land around stations. The capital is not a particularly dense city by international standards, and many of its stations are surrounded by areas less dense than the borough of Islington. The Mayor of London, in its upcoming London Plan, could choose to set minimum densities for development around stations, making the hubs of our world-renowned transport system realise their potential as hubs for urban growth.
Nicolas Bosetti is a research intern at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.