Network Rail runs around 20,000 miles of track, and more than 2,500 stations are along its length. Most of these are in rural settings, surrounded by open space or adjacent to low-density settlements, but some are within a short travel distance to the country’s largest towns and cities, which makes them perfect locations for people who want both a rural lifestyle and easy access to all of the amenities large cities offer.
Britain is notoriously poor at building rail capacity to serve its growing population. Many of the stations within easy reach of towns and cities are underused, with infrequent train services and low passenger numbers.
And yet we are also faced with a profound housing crisis, where increasing numbers of (mainly young) people are being priced out of the housing market and facing ever-increasing rental costs and precarious tenancies.
Given both the challenges and opportunities it makes sense, then, to consider how the intensification of the land in the immediate vicinity of rural stations might be utilised to deliver homes that we obviously, and desperately, need.
Using open-source mapping data we have undertaken an investigation into how much capacity there is around Britain’s stations to deliver new homes and social infrastructure. This has involved mapping every station in the England and establishing how much land around it might be used for development.
This is more than a geometrical exercise. There are considerable constraints on the development of rural land – some physical (the presence of existing buildings or waterways), some environmental (flood risk) and some political (green belt, national parks, areas of natural or ecological importance). These constraints have been considered, and we have done our best to omit the obvious ones from our calculations. We have steered clear of any areas within National Parks, but we consider the green belt to be fair game as this is an artificial construct which has very little to do with protecting areas of significant ecological value. Those parts of the country at risk of flooding have been avoided, as have public open spaces. We have respected areas of great landscape value (AGLV), sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and ancient woodland. You can read our detailed methodology here.
A Note Regarding Density
Too much space in England is taken up by low-density, car-dependent housing development of limited quality (although the ratio of buildings to land is extremely small). The profligate use of land is not only wasteful, it embeds a mode of living which is unsustainable in a climate crisis. High density, walkable neighbourhoods with access to public transport and which encourage active travel are demonstrably better for mental and physical wellbeing, community cohesion and use less carbon.
A typical edge-of-town housing estate might achieve 15-20 dwellings per hectare (dph). At the very least we should be aiming for 40-60dph depending on other factors, such as social infrastructure (shops, schools, open space) and proximity to other settlements. New development on the scale that we propose will enable these things to be provided in places where they are currently not.
Whether the pandemic has had a significant long-term effect on commuting patterns remains to be seen. Public transport figures appear to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, although there is obviously a significant move toward hybrid working, with people choosing to work from home at least some of the week. Nevertheless, on the days when people do need to commute, proximity to a station which provides access to places of work will be vital for many.
To address this, we have proposed a range of densities depending on proximity to major population centres. It makes little sense to dump five thousand homes around a remote station two hours from the city. But where a station just half an hour away from a major city is surrounded by fields, we should be bold in proposing significant intensification.
Train timetables change, within the limitations of capacity on its railway line, so the existing frequency of service and travel time is not a particularly useful measure of accessibility (and this data is difficult to obtain in a consistent format). The number of passengers using a station, however, is. For the year preceding the pandemic, the busiest station in this list, by passenger numbers, was Gatwick Airport station with over 21 million entrances and exits. Some lesser-used stations had fewer than 100. Gatwick is an anomaly of course: six of the seven most used stations in this study serve airports, the exception being Shenfield, with 4.1m annual movements. To avoid these outliers, we’ve omitted stations serving airports from the data – assuming also that close proximity to an airport doesn’t make for a great quality of life for residents.
Using passenger data as an analogue for accessibility and proximity means we can peg our density ambitions against them. A simple ratio doesn’t work: even with 25dph as an average density, we’d end up with something approaching 1,500dph for Gatwick. Instead we’ve used a series of thresholds, as follows:
|Passengers / Year||Density|
|5,000 to 9,999||10|
|10,000 to 24,999||15|
|25,000 to 49,999||20|
|50,000 to 99,999||30|
|100,000 to 199,999||40|
|200,000 to 999,999||50|
As an example, Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, had 46,438 passengers pass through it in the period 2019-2020. It’s about an hour from Newcastle Central Station, and using these figures would attract development of some 20dph. Chingford, on the outskirts of London in Waltham Forest, had over 2 million passenger movements in the same year. It’s around half an hour from London Liverpool Street with trains every quarter of an hour. The above table proposes 75dph for new development around this station.
How Many Homes?
The maximum theoretical housing capacity around a station, based on 50 dwellings per hectare and a typical ten-minute walking distance (800m), is 10,000 homes. Numerous constraints, as described in the methodology section, reduce this figure. However, once these constraints are removed, the total area of land available for development is 43,233 hectares. At a density of 50 dwellings per hectare, this would result in 2.1 million homes. However, bearing in mind many of the stations are in remote locations, with existing infrastructure unlikely to support large new homes, an adjustment in accordance with the table above results in a total number of 1.2 million homes.
A simple sum of the available space around each station is very slightly misleading: some stations, particularly those around the edges of major cities, are closer than 800m and therefore parts of their potential development zones overlap. This overlapping area is very small, though – less than half a percent of the total area. For the purposes of these calculations, we’ve chosen to ignore this minor anomaly.
Some of the land identified for development falls within the green belt. This is inevitable. Green belt is an artificial planning construction which has little to do with the quality of open space, and everything to do with preventing urban expansion.
Yet, building 1.26 million homes around England’s rural stations would in fact only require the loss of 15,750ha of green belt. That sounds like a lot, but it’s less than 1% of the entire country’s supply (in fact, England’s green belt expanded by more than this between 2021 and 2022).
That’s a small price to pay for delivering four years’ entire supply of new homes.