This BBC archive newsclip shows the North London Line in 1981 – when bad people wanted to turn it into a road

Broad Street in 1983. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikipedia.

The BBC Archive is a selection of social media accounts that do exactly what the name suggests: post video and audio clips from decades past, most of which serve mainly to enable us to marvel at the accents of yesteryear.

It did once have a website, but ironically, it’s been archived:

Anyway. Over the weekend, one of its old tweets caught my eye thanks to our occasional rail correspondent John Band. The tweet dates from July 2016, and the news clip it features from 1981. But it paints a vision of a dystopian future so horrifying, that I felt it was worth bringing to your attention, simply to show what a close shave we had. Honestly, it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Back in 1981, reporter Bill Kerr-Elliot (amazing accent) tells us, the North London Line was “so underused that you can often have a carriage to yourself”. Unlike latter incarnations of the largely orbital route, it ran into Central London, terminating at the late lamented Broad Street station.

Broad Street station is no longer with us: it closed in 1986, and was demolished, to be replaced by the Broadgate Office complex. Already by 1981, though, it was, Kerr Elliot tells us, a place of “Victorian splendour, now sadly down at heel”, before adding, in a marvellously portentous voice that you just don’t get in news reports any more, “No one quite remembers when the station master left.”

 

A blurry screenshot from the BBC film clip. Image: BBC.

At the time, it looked like the line it served (just 95p for a return to Richmond!) might be able to go the same way. The news clip features an interview with Andrew Warren of roads lobbying group “Movement for London” demanding the powers that be tear up the tracks and build a new road, on the grounds that everyone loves cars (no) and people would definitely use it (well, yes).

Another interviewee had a rather different vision for the line. David Thomas, chair of the North London Line Action Committee, we are told:

“has called on British rail to incorporate the line into a complete ring route around London, to operate more closely with London Transport, to advertise service more aggressively and to smarten up the stations”.

This, in the end, is exactly what happened. Okay, the line had to be diverted to Stratford and North Woolwich, and rebranded as “Silverlink” for a few depressing years. But in 2007, it was transferred to the new privately-operated but TfL-owned London Overground network.

The Overground in 2010, shortly before the North London Line Action Committee vision was realised. 

The new owners gave the line a deep clean, raised the profile of the system by advertising it as “London’s new trainset” and, over the next few years, hooked it up to the East, South and West London Lines to create a new loop around London. TfL, in other words, did literally everything that the North London Line Action Committee had asked for, even if it took 30 years.

So: the road lobby lost, for once. Which is nice. God, though, imagine if they hadn’t.

If you fancy watching the full clip, and seeing just how miserable London looked – and just how fruity BBC reporters sounded – in 1981, then you can do so here:

 

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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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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