The paralysis in Parliament means that its time for cities to take the lead

Midlands mayor Andy Street. Image: Getty.

With gridlock in Westminster a distinct possibility for the next five years, now is the time for local leaders, and in particular the new metro mayors, to step up and spur the next wave of innovation and enterprise that will drive the UK’s economy in the post Brexit world.

The outcome of the general election means that – while, clearly national policymaking will not stop – the minority Conservative government’s ability to do anything beyond Brexit, that is substantive and requires political leadership and consensus, will be severely constrained.

It is likely that, over the next five years, delivering any improvements or change on many of the issues that determine our country’s future prosperity and shared growth – the competitiveness of our businesses; the education of our children; the efficiency of our infrastructure; the availability of affordable housing; the quality of our public spaces; and the skills of our workers – Westminster will be only a junior partner.

This situation presents a unique opportunity for local leaders across the country to step up to the plate and drive our country forward. First amongst equals in the local leadership space should be the new metro mayors, who alongside the mayor of London, should build coalitions that encompass city, suburbs and rural areas and that bridge the political divisions that plague our national politics. In both these respects local leadership, already equipped with the pragmatism and experience of working across physical and political divides, will now be more important than ever before.

Under terrible circumstances over the last few weeks we’ve already had a glimpse of how the leadership dynamics within the country are changing. It was the mayors of Greater Manchester and London – Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan – rather than national politicians that led dignified and uplifting responses to the horrific terrorist attacks. In both cases also celebrating the city way of life and reminding the world that their cities remain open for business.


This prominence of local leadership will only increase, and will be in stark contrast to Westminster politics, as the other new metro mayors find their feet and start to set out their ambitions for their places. They can then work together on common causes, such as making the case that the success of the UK relies on the success of its cities.

And while they may not play a formal role in the Brexit negotiations, they could change the broader political context for these decisions – particularly if the shift to giving jobs, investment and growth are central principles guiding the Brexit negotiations gains real traction. After all, the Leave campaign was in part successful because it tapped into a sense that Westminster and Whitehall was remote and didn’t care about them – and in a highly centralised country this is difficult to argue against. Working as a group, the new metro mayors alongside the London Mayor can help address this sense of remoteness and apathy.

To take advantage of the paralysis at the heart of national politics and to differentiate their pragmatic, action-oriented approach from the partisan approach adopted by many national politicians, the metro mayors need to work with public, private and civic leaders from across political and physical divides. Doing this means different communities within their city regions will be represented as part of a positive agenda for economic growth in a post-Brexit world. Labour metro mayor Andy Burnham appointing Conservative Sean Anstee as his skills and employment lead, and Conservative metro mayor Andy Street appointing Solihull Conservative Leader Bob Sleigh as his deputy, are both important symbolic demonstrations of this approach.

While the details are still being worked out, we can be sure that the Conservative’s deal with the DUP will result in more money being allocated to Northern Ireland for jobs, innovation and infrastructure projects over the next five years. To make sure they don’t miss out, the metro mayors will need to act quickly and with clarity to set out how they intend to use their existing powers and funding to deliver concrete policy that will grow the city region economy in a way that promotes and supports innovation and inclusion. This will not only need to be clear to their residents, but also to those parts of Westminster (and beyond) that still need convincing that the mayoral model is a good one.

Not only that, the mayors will also need to set out what extra powers and funding they require from government, and be ready to call them out when political paralysis or civil servant obfuscation undermines their ability to make the investment and policy decisions to grow their economies.

But while the metro mayors can and should unite to demonstrate that strengthening cities means strengthening the economy, national politicians too need to recognise this role. Hung parliament or not, it is essential that MPs from both parties support the current metro mayors and encourage devolution deals to be brokered in the big cities yet to do so.

MPs of urban constituencies from left and right must recognise how a metro mayor gives an identity and a voice to the places they have been elected to represent. If anything, encouraging leadership in major economic hubs will mean national government can get on with Brexit negotiations, knowing that the biggest cities, with the biggest stake in our economic future, are being taken care of and will speak up when they need to.

Whatever happens in Westminster doesn’t need to stop cities doing what they need to do, and it won’t. The mayors of London, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and others have got it covered, they just need to make sure that national government knows it – and encourages them to keep going.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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