What does a better deal for the north actually look like?

Manchester town hall. Image: Getty.

It’s been great to see northern leaders pull together recently around transport funding, and there’s no doubt that they’ve caught the attention of policymakers. The worry, though, is that while they have gained the ear of national politicians, their central request for better intercity transport links will have little impact on the fundamental challenges northern cities face.

The idea of a high speed rail link is based on the idea of people being able to live in one city and work in another, opening up jobs in Liverpool to residents of Leeds for example, and vice versa. But this is unlikely to happen to any great extent for a number of reasons.

The first is that commuting is a cost – people don’t enjoy doing it. Workers commute long distances into London both because the pull factor of high wages and the push factor of expensive housing, which appears to push young families out into London’s hinterland in particular.

These push and pull factors are nowhere near as strong around northern cities. Lower wages reduce the attractiveness of travelling long distances, while lower housing costs mean that people are able to live much closer to their job, cutting down their commuting time and the cost of it.

The second is that people tend to choose to live in the same city region that they work in. For those that don’t, their choice is revealing – they don’t choose to live in another city region, but choose a rural location instead. This is most likely because a rural location offers something different to living in their place of work. The figure below shows this for Greater Manchester, with those living outside of the conurbation choosing to live in rural Cheshire or Lancashire, rather than in Liverpool or Leeds.

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The third is that a high speed rail link is just one line, serving a small number of commuters. This is compounded by the ‘high speed’ element, which will necessarily mean that there won’t be a number of stops to pick up commuters along the way. If increasing commuting is the aim, we should be looking at improving transport connections within city regions and to their surrounding hinterland, better linking residents in and around cities to the jobs within them.

This is exactly what Crossrail and Crossrail II are doing in London – adding to London’s transport network to ferry commuters in the suburbs and hinterland to jobs in its centre. Crossrail for the North is something different – a link between cities. We should be asking questions about transport provision in the north. But these questions should principally be around Crossrail for Manchester and Crossrail for Leeds, not Crossrail for the North.

There is no doubt that the North requires policy support – the North-South divide is at least 100 years old. While conversations have honed in on transport, what has become a little lost is that transport isn’t even the biggest challenge to attracting business investment in many northern cities.

Looking at skills shows that northern cities perform poorly not just in a UK context, but in a European one too. This is a big problem – high-skilled businesses are likely to invest in places where they can get the workers they need. Northern cities aren’t competitive on this front, and this is reflected in the types of businesses they have been able to attract.

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The skills issue seems to have been lost for two reasons. The first is the lure of the grand projet – building infrastructure captures the imagination much more easily than actions to improve skills.

The second is an issue of fairness. On face value, the statistics that underpin this argument are shocking. But there are a number of issues with how they have been presented, as shown by Henry Overman and more recently the mayor of London.

Despite these reservations, London has been given unfair preference. This isn’t around transport infrastructure spending, but around its other policy privileges, benefiting from having a mayor, a degree of devolution and Transport for London (and its associated powers) for almost two decades. Our strongest city is also our most powerful.

So what does this mean for northern leaders as they look to get a deal out of Westminster? The specific policy interventions will vary from city to city, but there are some basic principles that they should be looking to do or gain:

  • For those cities that don’t have one, strike a devolution deal and get a mayor over an appropriate city region geography.
  • Address the skills issues in their cities, focusing on reducing the number of people with no or few formal qualifications.
  • Get Transport for London style powers to help improve the transport network within their city regions.
  • It’s right for northern leaders to gather together to lobby Westminster for funding and powers to improve their economies. But for them to get the outcomes that we all want – greater prosperity the North’s residents deserve – we must make sure we’re focused on solutions that tackle the North’s biggest challenges.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was first published.

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You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.

Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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