Crossrail: A Rerun of History?

We wrote this article 6 weeks before Crossrail’s latest woes were revealed. We hope it still makes for an interesting read in this new context and let’s hope the latest chapter in the history of Crossrail 1 won’t repeat itself too soon.

History has an annoying habit of repeating itself. Whether its political coups, class struggles or even epidemics, the past always seems to come back to haunt the present (see Dickens, Charles A Christmas Carol). Whilst historians spend their lives proclaiming “I hate to say I told you so”, looking back can actually be a useful way of gaining perspective and context for current affairs. Analysing whether the largest engineering project in Europe, otherwise known as Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line (an area of steamy debate in the railway enthusiast world), is a repeat of events 100 years ago poses an interesting question.

During the 1850s, London was overflowing with slums blighting every street corner, a bit like artisanal bakeries do today. It was then that the Underground was first proposed by Charles Pearson who spearheaded the initial plan to relocate the slumdwellers to new suburbs with access to the capital via rail. And, after decades of expansion, the Metropolitan Railway began to reach villages such as Aylesbury in 1892 and Chesham in 1899.

It was during the early 1900s that the Metropolitan Railway Company began to realise the potential of combining new housing and transport links. They cleverly started to build their own housing developments with the first estates opening in Wembley Park and Pinner on land next to the railway tracks. The middle-classes flocked to the estates, driven by promises of better standards of living and supported by mortgages which had become widely available. The Metropolitan Railway Company increased their footfall per annum and made a pound or two in the process. This was the start of a blossoming marriage between rail and property, who’s offspring would include suburbia and the commute.

The Metropolitan Railway began famously referring to the nascent suburbia as ‘Metro-land’ and adverts displaying rural living in reach of the city sprung up throughout the southeast of England. Former villages like Neasden, Ruislip, and Hillingdon were transformed. In a few decades, Harrow Weald’s population rose from 1,500 to 11,000 and Pinner expanded from 3,000 to 23,000.

Residents of ‘Metro-land’ were motivated by a higher quality of living coupled with the chance of owning their own homes. The Tudor Walters Report of 1918 set the building standards for the new developments and focussed on factors such as housing density, minimum numbers of bedrooms and living rooms, and fixed baths (swish). Hedges and fences were to be used rather than walls and each street was to be lined with trees.

So, what awaits the people currently residing in Crossrail’s path? This includes those to the west in Twyford, Taplow, Burnham and Iver and those to the east in Shenfield, Brentwood, Ilford and Abbey Wood. Two things from history are clear: developments and value this way come.

Twyford and the surrounding Wokingham area has seen a sharp rise in the development of premium properties while out east, in the Woolwich area, properties such as Royal Arsenal Woolwich and Abbey Place are breathing new life into the once dilapidated district.

Developments however pale in comparison to the already apparent rise in property value. Take Abbey Wood for example, where the average home value grew by 146% between 2011 and 2018. Twyford has also seen growth in value at a more modest 36.5%. These two examples are demonstrative of an average rise in value by 66% of properties in a one-mile radius of a Crossrail station.

This is where history and the present differ. Whilst the initial expansion of the Underground into ‘Metro-land’ was based on affordability and aimed at people who had previously co-occupied houses with other families, Crossrail’s property boom is grounded in value. Much of the land where Crossrail is set to arrive has already been built upon or is protected by the green-belt. This means that existing properties have become more sought after and the invisible hand raises their value significantly. History tells us that railways and housing are married. Their offspring was once new houses and a suburbia, today it can mostly be found on a spreadsheet.

Author: Will Lister in conversation with Martin Long (research references available on request)

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