Oh good, another pretty picture which won’t solve any of London’s actual problems

It looks lovely. Shame it’s such total nonsense. Image: WATG.

It happened again. Another architecture practice has seemingly decided that it’s too difficult to get attention and praise for its actual work, and decided instead to cut out all that difficult “designing and building things” stuff, and just put out a pretty picture.

And it works. The media lap it up, because the readers lap it up. Look how beautiful Fleet Street is, with one, narrow lane of traffic instead of four! Look at the bike lanes! Look at all the plants!

And everyone loves it because you would, wouldn’t you? It looks much nicer than the grey, drab, polluted chasm that is the actual Fleet Street. I said it was a pretty picture, and it is: it’s gorgeous.

But – that’s all it is. It’s not a plan for Fleet Street, because it doesn’t – doesn’t try to – doesn’t even pretend to try to – tackle any of the problems you’d actually have to tackle if you wanted to actually change anything.

In that part of London, there are three east-west routes in the space of about 1km: High Holborn (the A40) in the north, the Victoria Embankment (the A3211) along the river in the south, and Fleet Street (the A4, actually) in between. Those are the only through routes open not just to private cars, but also to delivery vehicles, taxis and – most importantly – buses.

Now I am all in favour of measures to reduce pollution and motor traffic in our cities. But close Fleet Street to most vehicles in this way, and at the very least you need to work out what to do with the six bus routes and eight night bus routes you’ve just displaced.


High Holborn is too far and too crowded. The Embankment is a possibility, but it’s already pretty snarled up itself. And that’s just the buses. It’s probable that not every delivery van, say, currently using Fleet Street needs to be there – but some almost certainly do. What about them? What shall we do with them?

I don’t believe for a second that the people who commissioned this drawing have even thought about this problem. Because solving London’s problems is not what it’s for. What it’s for is garnering free media coverage for a time-pressed and click-hungry media.

You will notice that I’ve not mentioned the name of the architecture practice responsible for this monstrosity. I’m not going to, either. If you really want to know, you can look at the picture credit, but you won’t will you? Because you don’t care either. You’ve seen the pretty picture. You’ve read my rant. You don’t care which particular architects inspired it.

I’m fine with that. I’m fine with you never knowing their name. Because ad buys are shrinking, we’ve got bills to pay, and I am sick of these people thinking they can get free media coverage just because they can use Photoshop.

Also, you know what happens when you start acting like these graphics are serious thought leadership rather than just pretty pictures? Heatherwick, that’s what happens. Do you want to be responsible for creating another Thomas Heatherwick? No. Of course you don’t.

Stop giving these people the oxygen of publicity. Think once. Think twice. Think, don’t click.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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