If Britain is to thrive outside Europe, it must empower its medium sized cities

Coventry: a medium sized city crying out for a little empowerment. Image: Getty.

The truth of the past month is that a long-brewing crisis of our politics has finally erupted. It is not my job to pick over the reasons underpinning the Brexit vote; the British people have spoken, and their decision must be implemented in as coherent and orderly a fashion as possible.

Looking at the voting numbers which so painfully demonstrated the reality of a divided country, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a couple years ago on the potential role of cities and devolution in uniting the country. The Key Cities Group was created to advocate for increased powers to cities – not so that cities can go it alone, but because we believed that by empowering individual cities, you can create strong communities and thus build a better Britain. Indeed, I still believe that with greater powers to cities, we can have a more vibrant and united country, with prosperity more evenly spread.

Underlining this train of thought, IPPR North recently published an excellent report – City systems: The role of small and medium-sized towns and cities in growing the northern powerhouse – which highlights how cities like our members are critical to this effort. It serves as a reminder that we cannot let the political drama of the referendum fall-out and ensuing soap opera distract us from the good work we have embarked upon to spread economic development throughout the country through the devolution process.

The IPPR report provides a warning against adopting a uniform approach to devolution, on the assumption that only one kind of city can prove successful in a global economy. Instead, the report encourages us to view the success of different cities, not as some natural phenomenon in urban development, but as the product of deliberate public policy decisions.

London, for instance, was a shrinking city in decline for much of the 20th century – but its position in a new global economy, and new devolved powers unlocking huge investment in infrastructure, have seen it become a world success. Manchester has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in the last 20 years to become the centre of growth in northern England. We have to take the same attitude toward our mid-sized cities.

There is no reason, though, why they cannot also experience a remarkable turnaround. The IPPR report refers to several, interesting examples of how and where this has been achieved, and there are so many more mid-sized cities with huge potential. As the IPPR report emphasises, there is no correlation between population and productivity in the UK: indeed, as both IPPR and our own report with ResPublica last year demonstrated, mid-sized cities have seen their Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy grow at the same rate as other cities since the recession almost 10 years ago. What we need is a change of mentality as much as anything else.

IPPR has recommended that Key Cities like ours invoke the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and energy of small & medium size enterprises (SMEs). IPPR has also recommended that we identify the role we play in wider urban ecosystems, both with larger cities, and with rural hinterlands who supply markets and workers. And it suggested that critically evaluate where our cities need more capacity and expertise at the local government level, if they are to play their part in shaping regional and national policy.

There is much merit in these suggestions, and they are worth pursuing. I would echo IPPR’s stress on the importance of connectivity – both between cities and between sectors, moving people, moving goods, and moving ideas which promote innovation.

We must cooperate with towns and districts around us, and with our partners in Core Cities to achieve our common vision. To do anything less is to accept that the reality of a divided Britain which we saw on 23 June will be here to stay.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 24 mid-sized cities.

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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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