HS2 isn't about the north of England at all – it's about commuters in Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes' "Concrete Cows". Image: Concrete Cowboy/Wikimedia Commons.

Do we need a new superfast railway so that Mancunians can get to London’s gold-paved streets more quickly? Or do we need it because the trains they take at the moment will be full in a couple of years?

Will HS2 free up space on our railways and get lorries off the motorways? Or is it all just a waste of money that will destroy the English countryside?

Those are good questions. None of them matter.

If you want to know why the UK will build HS2 then the only question that matters is, “Have you ever been to Milton Keynes?”

Endless roundabouts, concrete cows, and suburbs with names like “Walnut Tree” and “Coffee Hall”, the UK’s fastest growing city is a bizarre place. But nothing about it is more unusual than its politics.

Milton Keynes is a pretty big city. Both of its MPs are Conservatives. If you’ve been paying attention, that should shock you.

In Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Leeds — the cities at the ends of HS2 — elections are pretty much a formality. Sure, there are leaflets, and hustings, and campaigns like anywhere. But none of it matters because at the end of it all most people vote Labour anyway. In Milton Keynes they often don’t.

So what does this have to do with a railway? Well, the track from London to Birmingham, and Liverpool, and Manchester — the track that may or may not be too slow, too full, better with freight on, or about to vandalise England’s countryside — goes through Milton Keynes. And every day thousands of people from Milton Keynes cram themselves onto trains to do well-paid jobs in London.

An annual season ticket from Milton Keynes to London costs £4,880. That works out at just over £10 a journey for a trip of 45 miles each way, about 25 pence a mile.

Walk up to Manchester Piccadilly station early in the morning and ask for a ticket to London, and the £164.50 you’ll be charged works out at about £1 per mile. However you do the maths**, the people of Manchester are paying a lot more than the people of Milton Keynes to use the same stretch of railway.

This isn’t an accident or an oversight; this was how the system was designed when the railways were privatised. The government chickened out of letting train companies set the prices of all tickets and intervened at the last minute. Train companies could charge peak-time day-trippers what they liked; but commuters would have their fares kept low by the government.

The problem we face now is that the railway is nearly full. Passenger numbers are increasing, and a select group of travellers are exempt from the usual mechanism of rationing supply – price.

The market solution to this problem would be simple. Fares for commuters from Milton Keynes should increase, to stop the railway from getting too full. But the Conservatives have promised not to raise fares.

There is an alternative market solution. Network Rail could cancel some trains from Milton Keynes and run more from Manchester. That would increase the number of Mancunians, paying much more for their journeys, who could still travel. This would make Network Rail money, and save the taxpayer cash – but it would be very unpopular in Milton Keynes.

The third solution is to build a new railway, that takes some of the strain off the line between Milton Keynes and London. That way the commuters of Milton Keynes can keep enjoying cheaper travel than Mancunians, and both can still take the train.

There’s just one problem; the fares between Milton Keynes and London are far too low to justify building a new railway.

So here’s the really clever bit about HS2. We build the new railway we need to the midlands – but then keep building it north to Manchester even though we don’t need to. This lets us say that we’re building it to serve Mancunians: then we can then use their much higher fares to make the scheme look like better value for money.

Politically this trick is perfect. Commuters in Milton Keynes get investment from the government (indirectly, through the relief to the existing line), and politicians can say that they’re investing in the North. It wins votes in places they matter, and costs them in safe seats where they don’t.

So here’s my advice when you’re thinking about HS2. Don’t get distracted by Birmingham or Manchester. Don’t get distracted by the countryside, by the speed, by the lorries we could take off the M6, or by what else we could do with the money.

None of that matters.

If you want to understand why HS2 will be built, go to Milton Keynes Central station at half-past six in the evening and ask a commuter if they’d vote for a party that made their season ticket more expensive. Then ask them if they’d vote for a party who cancelled some of their trains so that more people could get between London and Manchester.

When they say no, remember that these are the people who decide British elections. Their opinions matter more than yours – and their answers leave politicians with only one possible solution. Build HS2.

**Some would argue that this is an unfair comparison. But almost no-one in Manchester commutes every day to London, so the majority of passengers are buying the anytime tickets. By contrast, lots of people in Milton Keynes commute to London, so the majority of passengers are buying season tickets. 

It doesn't matter that they're travelling on different types of ticket: these are the prices most likely to be paid by the passengers currently taking up space on the West Coast Main Line.

 
 
 
 

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.

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