Election 2017: What are the parties promising on transport?

A lovely train. Image: Getty.

Transport is important. I am assuming, dear reader, from the fact you are on this website at all that you are well aware of this.

Our political leaders, though, often neglect transport. It’s lower on voters’ priority lists than hospitals or schools, capital investment is easier to cut than revenue spending and, anyway, if a minister throws all their energy into getting a new railway line built, some other government will get to snip the ribbon in about 15 years time. Throw in the fact that building anything in this country tends to annoy a small but vocal crowd of angry homeowners and it’s little wonder so few politicians are banging the drum for new roads and rails.

This year’s manifestos are not completely silent, though – so what is the next government likely to do to keep us moving?

Let’s start with the favourites.

The Tories

Education gets around five pages of the Tory manifesto. The NHS gets four; housing gets two.

Transport doesn’t quite manage one.

But length isn’t everything, it’s what you do with it that counts, so is that page any good?

Well... no.

There’s a promise of “one of the largest-ever investment programmes in our roads and railway”, worth £40bn by the end of the decade. But this is one of those figures that may not be as big as it sounds: in recent years, the Department for Transport has generally been getting around £7-8bn in capital funding every year, so in the three years between here and 2020 you’d expect around £25bn anyway.

And much of the extra cash is likely to be swallowed up by a couple of major projects. To whit:

“We will continue our programme of strategic national investments, including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the expansion of Heathrow Airport.”

Or, to put it another way: don’t go expecting the Leeds Supertram to be back on the agenda any time soon, lads.

Elsewhere, in a section on the National Productivity Investment Fund, we are promised:

“...£740 million of digital infrastructure investment, the largest investment in railways since Victorian times, £1.1 billion to improve local transport and £250 million in skills by the end of 2020.”

This also sounds exciting, but the fact they don’t put a figure on it, combined with the vagueness of the answer, suggests to me that the lion’s share of that “largest investment since Victorian times” is going on those major projects listed above.

That’s not to say they’re not important. High Speed 2 should help deal with the capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line. The Northern Powershouse Rail, thing, too, is a vital step if we’re ever to rebalance the economy in this country.

But what’s really noteworthy about that list is what’s not on it: Crossrail 2, expected to be the next major project to hit London, is nowhere to be seen. It was in the 2015 manifesto, so its exclusion is likely significant. It might well be dead.

The rest of the transport section is pretty vague: extra motorway lanes, extra rail capacity, “new lines and stations” and support for councils building cycle networks. There’s also a promise to push ahead with electric vehicles and low-emission buses.

Zac Goldsmith is sad. Image: Getty.

ast but not least, there’s the promise to expand Heathrow. This, while expected, has the amusing side effect of meaning that Zac Goldsmith – who left the Conservative party to fight a bi-election on an anti-Heathrow ticket, and lost – is now standing as a Conservative candidate on a pro-Heathrow ticket. Poor Zac. Nothing ever goes right for you does it?


The opposition is promising a “National Transformation Fund that will invest £250 billion over ten years in upgrading our economy” – that’ll cover all infrastructure, but transport is likely to be a big part.

  • Specific projects promised a Corbyn government’s love include:
  • High Speed 2, from London to Birmingham, on to Leeds and Manchester, and then all the way to Scotland;
  • Crossrail of the North – that’s Northern Powerhouse Rail in disguise;
  • Completing what used to be known as the Varsity Line, and is now apparently the “Science Vale” transport arc from Oxford to Cambridge through Milton Keynes;
  • Crossrail 2! Oh, huzzah.
  • And, more surprisingly, a new Brighton Main Line. Why not.

There’s also a promise of rail electrification, especially in Wales and the west, which is a policy that has been popping up in manifestos literally since the Second World War, so I’ll believe it when I see it.

Labour’s most prominent transport policy, though, is rail nationalisation: an endto the franchise system, and a return of public ownership. This, we’re told, would mean

“...capping fares, introducing free wi-fi across the network, ensuring safe staffing levels, ending the expansion of driver only operations, and introducing legal duties to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.”

Just like in the British Rail days.

Elsewhere, the manifesto promises better regulation of bus routes; retrofitting diesel buses; and reforming taxi regulation, so watch out Uber. There’s also talk of a few specific road projects to relieve bottle necks – the A1 North and Severn Bridge are both mentioned – and getting the National Infrastructure Commission to work on upgrading the National Cycle Network.

Lastly, the manifesto “recognises the need for additional air capacity in the south east” but stops short of promising to expand Heathrow. First, we need to deal with noise, air quality and climate change issues. I think that’s a “We’ll see”, as my mum used to say when she wanted to shut me up.

The LibDems

At first glance, the yellows don’t seem very interested in transport: there’s no transport section in their manifesto, and it took me a while to find its policies,  buried in the “families and communities” section.

There you’ll find a hodge pordge of ideas: electrification, reopening of stations, “ensuring that new rail franchises include a stronger focus on customer”, apparently through the medium of a Rail Ombudsman. It’s also promising a “Young Person’s Bus Discount Card” for 16-21 year olds, presumably to make buses cool again.

The major investments promised are a familiar list: Crossrail 2, HS2, HS3 (that’s the northern one again; does it need that many names?), and the Oxford-Cambridge link, now going by the name “East West Rail”.

In terms of aviation, the party wants a “strategic airports policy for the whole of the the UK”; it’s opposed to Heathrow expansion.

And finally, the party also backs London Overground taking over more suburban rail services. That one we can get behind.

The others

The transport section of UKIP’s manifesto is promised “keeping Britain moving” which is an ironic title, because its two big polices are scrapping HS2 and ending road tolls, two policies calculated to stop Britain moving entirely.

It also opposes the Thames Crossing from Thurrock  to Gravesend, but is in favour of one further east. And it’s tentatively supportive of better east-west links in the north (though it doesn’t refer to them by any of their many, many names).

Less predictably, it’s in favour of the transition to zero emission vehicles, and while it opposes Heathrow expansion it thinks it’s found an alternative in reopening Manston Airport in Thanet, Kent. This is not a joke.

The Green party, unsurprisingly, likes green transport. It’s promising to nationalise the railways, re-regulate buses, invest in a series of new rail links... On the whole, except for the promise to cancel airport expansion, it’s not a million miles away from Labour.

Transport is a devolved matter, which is nice, because it gets me out of doing the SNP or Plaid, I’ve read quite enough manifestos for one day.  Phew.

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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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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