Berlin goes to the polls: What's at stake in this Sunday's state elections?

Rotes Rathaus, the seat of Berlin's executive. Image: Eben Marks.

Since reunification, Berlin has been a huge success. The undisputed capital of European cool. The new Mecca for tech startups. Some of cheapest housing of any big, booming city. Home to western Europe’s most important government – and surely poised to overtake post-Brexit London.

Or – is Berlin a failure? The cheap housing eaten up tourist lets and hipsters who never learn the language. Its infrastructure an embarrassment compared to the rest of Germany, a fact summed up by the new airport which is six years behind schedule and counting. Huge debts, dreadful schools and a backwards economy.

Confused by these contradictions? Spare a thought for Berlin’s voters, who go to the polls on 18 September to elect a new administration. They have to figure out which story they believe, and who they trust to look after the city, over the next five years.

As one of Germany’s sixteen states, Berlin’s government has powers Britain’s mayors and council leaders can only dream of. This includes significant control over education, policing, urban development and taxes. The newly elected parliament will choose the governing mayor and other cabinet members.

The Social Democrats (SPD) look set to remain as the city’s largest party, but on a reduced share of the vote. The Christian Democrats (CDU), the Left party, and Greens are all vying to become their coalition partners, and a three-way pact looks likely.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) will also enter the Berlin parliament for the first time. Polling suggests they will probably land in 4th or 5th place – but that will be enough to make a significant dent in the shares of the other parties.

Build more bloody houses

In the last few years the city’s SPD-CDU coalition government has made a number of moves which have attracted international attention. Two of them – the rent brake and the AirBnB ban – were attempts to preserve affordability as housing demand has grown.

The rent break was supposed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 10 per cent of a neighbourhood average when signing a new contract with tenants. With the onus on tenants to take landlords to court for breaches of the rule, it is often flouted, and has had little effect beyond the first month after introduction. The SPD, who introduced the law, now suggest changing it so the burden of proof lies on the landlord.

The AirBnB ban stops people from letting out whole flats to tourists without a permit – but the task of enforcing that, too, falls to a very small team of inspectors.

Housing has featured strongly in this election, too – and, looking at the manifestos, there are some broad similarities between the different parties. Most of them speak of the need to build more flats, and especially affordable accommodation.

As Thomas Heilmann, a CDU member of the city government and the party’s campaign director, told me, in words which would sound alien coming from a British conservative: “The growth of the city attracts real estate developers. Part of our policy is really to restrict their trading – we do not want to have real estate that changes hands often and fast.

“The only thing we want is people to build new houses.”

The vision thing

Start asking politicians about their visions for the city, however, and clear differences start to appear.

The SPD and CDU are both keen to sustain or accelerate the city’s growth as an international hub for business and tourism. The much delayed airport is supposed to be a part of this, as are the new hotels and shopping centres springing up in popular neighbourhoods.

Thomas Heilmann sees the growth of the technology sector as the “most important economic development for the city in the next few years”. This will be partly through launches of new businesses. But it’ll also involve Germany’s industrial giants – mostly based far from Berlin – moving parts of their workforce to the city in order to develop their digital skills. VW has already done this, recently opening of a research centre for electric and self-driving vehicles.

On the other side, the Green and Left parties are pitching for residents feeling left behind by the changes in Berlin’s economy. Rents might be cheap compared to London, but they have risen quickly for people living here. And some Berliners feel that their neighbourhoods are suffering under the influx of party-seeking tourists.

A Green spokesperson told me that “instead of relying on ever new attendance records we want to work out a neighbourhood compatible tourism concept for Berlin”. This would preserve the variety of the city’s urban fabric, something they point out is one of the big draws for tourists in the first place. As Katalin Gennburg, a Left party candidate, said, “You can’t imagine a city as only a brand” without having a plan to manage different needs equitably.

One of the most important constituencies in the city consists of people who can’t vote – the tens of thousands of refugees living in the city. The pressure of new arrivals has dropped since 2015 but the city still needs to improve its processes for helping them. In the longer term, permanent homes and a place in society is needed for refugees who stay in Berlin.

The next five years will see significant challenges for Berlin – but many of these challenges come from being a city on the up. The new government will need to use its tools creatively and in a way that brings Berliners together. Otherwise divisions will become entrenched, and Berlin’s successes will start to pale in face of its failures.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

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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