An investigation into the important matter of Chris Grayling’s secret adoration of the maglev

This picture will never get old. Image: Getty.

Does Chris Grayling have a secret adoration for maglevs? The futuristic train technology, where magnets are used in place of wheels to make the carriage levitate, has a rocky history in this country. But as talk stirs of plans to build a maglev line from Manchester to Leeds (no, really), it’s worth taking a look at what the now-transport secretary had to say in a speech back in March 2007.

“No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated Maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed,” Grayling said, presumably with the sort of gusto reminiscent of a 19th century rail engineer. “It could well be a vision for the future. Not only is it fast – It also appears to offer much more versatility than conventional rail.”

That misty-eyed speech, made while Grayling was shadow transport secretary under David Cameron, used to be available on the Conservative Party website. In November 2013, the party started deleting speeches made during its time in opposition, so today it’s only accessible from the MySociety archive.

It’s true, the Shanghai maglev is impressive. Passengers are whisked from the airport to the city centre in just eight minutes, covering 19 miles at a speed of around 270 miles per hour. Costing 1.2 billion yuan, it was meant to serve as a testing bed for a longer line that would the city to Beijing. Unfortunately, the Chinese government opted for traditional rail, as a maglev would not work with the country’s existing network.


Much like Shanghai, Grayling wanted to start small with a regional route to demonstrate the system’s viability. In the speech, he specified Leeds to Manchester and Glasgow to Edinburgh as two ideal routes. He promised the party would conduct a feasibility study into the technology. Also much like Shanghai, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Unfortunately, while Grayling was giving his speech, one private company was trying to put the cart before the horse (or rather, the train before the magnet). UK Ultraspeed, which submitted evidence to the 2006 Eddington Review of Britain’s transport network, wanted £29bn to fling trains across the country. The plan envisioned two southern terminuses, at London Stratford and Heathrow, with the lines meeting at a station by the M25. It then ran up to Birmingham and Manchester (where an offshoot ran to Liverpool), then continued up to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, before terminating in Glasgow. The whole trip from London to Glasgow would take just 2 hours and 40 minutes.

If the Eddington Review was sink or swim time for maglev, it swiftly sank, in dramatic fashion. In June 2007, a government-commissioned team of researchers reported that the train could actually make carbon emissions worse; it would do little to reduce journey times between nearby cities, as the plan placed the stations far from city centresl; and the system would not work with existing rail lines. In July, the government confirmed they would not be going ahead with the plan, not least because it was likely to cost double what UK Ultraspeed claimed, with the bill coming in at around £60bn.

That same month, Grayling was reshuffled out of the transport brief. What seemed like a forward-thinking idea just four months prior suddenly looked costly and ridiculous.

But UK Ultraspeed didn’t give up. It produced a press pack in July 2008, which hilariously included a quote from Grayling’s speech. The firm managed to leave out the part where Grayling specifically said it would be better to test the technology on a shorter route instead of jumping in at the deep end.

In the decade after the speech, neither Grayling nor his party said anything much about maglev. Hansard documents the odd cry from backbench MPs demanding why we aren’t pouring money into floating trains, but the former shadow transport secretary stayed oddly quiet. Curiously, Tory MP Cheryl Gillan made reference to a “super maglev” in 2015, but it was never mentioned again.

Fortunately, this tale has a happy ending. When Theresa May became leader last July, she put Grayling back on transport. There’s a lovely photo on Twitter of Grayling in Japan just two months later, about to get on a maglev, living out the dream snatched away all those summers ago.

But Grayling’s vision may find a new lease of life in Sean Anstee, who’s vying to claim the Greater Manchester mayorality for the Conservatives next month. Anstee previously told CityMetric that if elected, he would study the viability of a maglev system for the city.

A line in the candidate’s manifesto makes the sort of promises that would have made Grayling proud: “I will commission a study into how new transport methods such as Hyperloop technology can be used to make a transport system envied by the world.”

Perhaps the UK will get an incompatible train system with questionable benefits after all.

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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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