Rail companies mount charm offensive

RAIL companies hoping to win the Greater Anglia franchise in 2004 have been on something of a charm offensive for "opinion formers" in Suffolk recently.

RAIL companies hoping to win the Greater Anglia franchise in 2004 have been on something of a charm offensive for "opinion formers" in Suffolk recently.

First Group – which currently runs Great Eastern – invited people to a teatime seminar to learn about their plans for the franchise.

This was soon followed up by morning coffee with National Express, which currently runs the West Anglia Great Northern service from London to Cambridge and Kings Lynn.

There's much talk of integrating transport and making it easier for people with cars to leave their vehicles at home.

I just hope that these integrationists don't get too enthusiastic about the subject and end up preaching the virtues of "Bustitution" – replacing trains with buses wherever possible.

And it's become clear that whoever operates the trains in the region over the next seven years is going to have to follow the instructions from the government's Strategic Rail Authority.

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It's clearly important for the companies who runs the trains – but I've still to be convinced that it will make a great deal of difference for the passengers.

HOUSING hasn't been a major political issue for a few years now, but suddenly it's getting a lot of attention from the government.

"Essential workers" are being promised special treatment to allow them to live in areas with high property prices.

And we've even heard the unmentionable – that the right to buy council houses introduced by the Conservatives in 1979 might be repealed.

House ownership is so enshrined in the social fabric of this country that it sounds like heresy to suggest that there's anyway else to live.

But I can't help feeling that many of the problems we are seeing in southern England – within commuting distance of London – are caused by the notion that buying a house "is the best investment you can make."

That was the watchword of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in 1979 – and it is still often quoted to people considering buying property.

It took a bit of a hit during the slump of 1988-92, but overall most people still seem to want to buy their own home – whether it's a house, a flat, or something in between!

Few people would agree with convicted killer Nicholas van Hoogstraten that "tenants are scum," but most would rather have a mortgage than a rent book.

However this is a very British attitude – in most other parts of Europe there is a much larger rented sector and many people have no ambition to buy their own homes.

In this country the largest landlords were traditionally local authorities, but many – like Suffolk Coastal – have sold off all their homes to housing associations.

And others which have continued to run their own housing departments, like Ipswich, have seen their housing stock dwindle under right to buy legislation – and haven't been able to replace what they've lost.

Now Britain – and especially the south-east – is left with not enough rented housing for people who need it.

If the government really wants to solve its housing crisis, it needs to persuade voters that they don't need to be homeowners to have a stake in society.

One other point on housing. Who is going to decide who the "essential workers" are who can have cheap housing?

We've heard teachers, police officers, nurses and firefighters quoted as examples.

But what about binmen? Are they essential? What about shopworkers, hospital porters, bus or train drivers?

Surely every job is essential to the person doing it!