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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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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