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Station development: On the right tracks?

The government may be currently preoccupied with the aftermath of a certain referendum, but once the dust settles, new prime minister Theresa May will still have to meet the country’s housing need.

While many look to new projects like Crossrail 2 and HS2 to propel regeneration, plenty of untapped potential exists to build homes around existing infrastructure.

This is especially true in regional towns and cities, which have typically missed out on the huge waves of investment into transport that London has enjoyed.

With the capital bursting at the seams, commuter hubs are already where many look to live. Key settlements in the Home Counties will need to embrace their proximity to London and ramp up their housebuilding efforts.

Reimagining our spaces

This doesn’t have to involve paving over greenfield sites. From hospitals and schools to offices and GP surgeries, Britain is pretty bad at physically integrating housing. If we are serious about solving the housing crisis, we need to start thinking creatively around making more efficient use of what we already have.

Railway stations are the obvious chance to do this. As traffic problems grow, the need for better public transport amplifies. As we’ve seen on a grand scale at King’s Cross and at small scale in Hayes, rail-led regeneration can open up many opportunities.

“A far bigger opportunity lies in Network Rail, whose estate spans the length and breadth of the country”

One of our first schemes to launch this summer will be in Bracknell, immediately above its station. We hope to appeal to time-poor workers let down by the local rental market by offering quality apartments in a central location designed only for rent. The direct line takes just an hour to get to Waterloo.

PLATFORM_, our build-to-rent brand, is not alone in realising the benefits of building above rail. TfL is now engaged on a high-profile disposal of sites across London in a bid to cash in on the need for homes. The challenge for many central London sites will be cost. This is less of a problem across regional employment hubs.

Connectivity is crucial for many professionals and it will be central to the success of build-to-rent. In an age where convenience is king, being close to transport links will be vital to attracting and retaining tenants.

Networking potential

Given the current London-centric focus of build-to-rent, the excitement around TfL’s land disposals is understandable. But a far bigger opportunity lies in Network Rail, whose estate spans the length and breadth of the country.

Some progress has already been made, but we need to see more if the property industry and the public are to fully reap the rewards.

In April, Network Rail set up its first dedicated propco to drive rail network upgrades through the disposal of £1.8bn of assets across stations, depots, freight sites and arches. This has set out in part a forward-thinking plan to boost housebuilding numbers while improving the transport network.

“Stations can change from being only places of transit to hubs of activity in their own right if we get our mindset out of the steam age”

Whereas those blinded by the dream of mass homeownership would like to see these sites turned into market-sale housing, build-to-rent could prove a better route.

It can offer public bodies like Network Rail a share of a long-term steady income stream – as opposed to one-off capital receipts. Build-to-rent developers also have an interest in bringing homes to market more quickly than build-for-sale – meaning they’re able to start earning earlier on.

Wider benefits

But building around transport hubs isn’t just appealing to developers and the public sector; it has real benefits for people looking to live in well-connected locations and for businesses in the area to profit from higher levels of footfall. There is also a clear and pressing demand for quality rental homes that currently isn’t being met.

Station development offers a golden opportunity to deliver new facilities for communities, creating places where people actually want to live with a blend of commercial, leisure and health facilities.

By definition, the scale needed for amenities to be viable can be easily reached. Stations can change from being only places of transit to hubs of activity in their own right if we get our mindset out of the steam age.

Matt Willcock is head of development at Westrock, the investor and developer behind PLATFORM_

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