What does the snap election mean for the metro mayor elections?

These lads are probably still winners: Labour's candidates in the Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham. Image: Getty.

You know, I was almost getting excited. With just under three weeks left until this year’s metro mayor elections on 4 May, I thought, England's cities were at long last coming to the fore. Finally, it would be devolution’s time to shine.

And then Theresa May had to go and blow it all by announcing an unexpected election on 8 June. Bummer.

But what does the snap election mean for the mayorals? Here’s my best guess.

1) It’ll be good for turnout

This might seem counter-intuitive: most people don’t care about politics, and expecting them to vote, just a month before they have to vote again for something more important, looks like taking the mickey somewhat. But I reckon it’s true nonetheless.

Here’s my logic. Turnout in the locals was always going to be appalling: one mayoral candidate predicted to me it’d be 20 per cent, which, bleurgh. But a general election will raise the general level of political awareness, making people more likely to vote.

It’s entirely possible, indeed, that some people will show up on 4 May thinking it’s actually election day. Not many, no; but my guess is that there are more of those than there are people who would have voted, but will now ignore the locals on the grounds that they only vote once a year and national government is more important.

So – we can’t be sure, and the lack of a control group means we’ll never know what turnout would have been without a general election (which is great, as it means you can’t prove me wrong). But if pushed, I reckon this announcement will be good for mayoral turnout.

2) It’ll be bad for Labour

In mayoral elections, more than any other, people for individuals, not parties. This graphic by Matthew Smith charts the history of England’s modern mayoralties: just look how many independents have won.

But a general election campaign will make people more likely to view these elections through the prism of Westminster – to think less about personality and local issues, and more about the parties’ leaders. And, all the evidence suggests that if people are thinking about Jeremy Corbyn when they go to the polls, they are less likely to vote Labour.

So my guess is, where Labour can lose, Theresa May just ensured that it will.

3) Predictable results are still predictable

According to the elections expert Professor John Curtice, if you combine previous election results with national swing since, Labour has about 12 point advantage in Manchester and a 35 point one in Merseyside. The Tories, meanwhile, should be more than 30 points ahead in Peterborough & Cambridgeshire.

We knew who would win those elections before 11am yesterday: we still know now.

4) The West Midlands will go blue

This is meant to be the marginal one: Curtice reckons it’s neck and neck here.

Well, swing voters just became more likely to see the election as May vs Corbyn rather than Street vs Simon. They are, if I’m right on point 1, more likely to turn out, too.

So my guess is: Andy Street wins the West Midlands.

5) So, shockingly, could Tees Valley

Labour’s Sue Jeffrey is campaigning very hard here. But word last week was that Labour's NEC were worrying about the poor reception the party was getting on the doorstep (that man Corbyn's name kept coming up; don’t shoot the messenger, guys). And in a Middlesbrough council byelection over the weekend, the party lost a seat it’s held for 18 years to a Tory on an 8 per cent swing.

This really should be an easy win for Labour: according to Curtice, even taing into account an 8 point swing nationally, it should be around 5 points ahead. But I think it’s entirely possible that Tory Ben Houchen could carry this one.


6) The LibDems could carry the West of England

Okay this one is more speculative, but bear with me. In this area – basically, Greater Bristol – the Tory Tim Bowles has to be the favourite too.

But the LibDems are stronger here than elsewhere, and have a reasonably well-known candidate, in the former MP Stephen Williams. What’s more, the next couple of months are likely to be a good election cycle for the LibDems, as disaffected Remain voters seek a way to protest against Brexit. Those same voters are among the most likely to turnout at any election (richer, more educated).

Williams is still the outsider. But were I a betting man, it might be worth a flutter.

7) No one will pay any attention to the candidates or manifestos

It was pretty difficult attracting any attention to these elections before the general election hullaballoo. That may have changed.

But not all attention is equal – and while I suspect a Tory upset in the Tees Valley will attract national press attention, it won’t be because of Ben Houchen’s plans to take the Durham Tees Valle airport back into public ownership. It's all horserace, all the time from here on in.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

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.

Trade-offs

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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.