Could the West Midlands elect Britain’s first female metro mayor?

This is not a woman, this is the Library of Birmingham. Image: Getty.

There are now eight English metropolitan areas with combined authorities and metro mayors, covering a combined population of 20m. Not one of them has ever elected a woman.

If you take all directly-elected mayors into account, then there are three women out of 24. By way of comparison, there are two Andys, Daves, and Peters apiece.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are unhappy about this – and women in the West Midlands Labour party think they’ve spotted an opportunity.

The party should be holding its selection race next summer. But, given that this is possibly the closest race in the country with the biggest electorate outside of London, and given that it’s a region where a popular sitting Tory mayor could be defeated, there is an argument that the party should select its candidate as soon as possible, in order to give them more time to build up a profile. (This is what the Tories have done in London.)

For the West Midlands to have a hope of becoming the first to elect a female metro mayor, though, Labour would have to include at least one woman on the shortlist. This didn’t happen in in 2016, when Siôn Simon was selected against little to no internal opposition.

Cllr Nicky Brennan was first elected to Birmingham City Council this year, and Cllr Liz Clements the year before. Since then they, along with other women in the West Midlands Labour Party, have been speaking out on this issue. I asked them why they feel that none of the metro mayors and so few directly elected mayors are women.

“It’s pretty grim being a women in politics sometimes,” Brennan says. “Just take the word ambitious. For a man this is a good thing, it's positive, it's what we expect. But for a woman it’s negative; she's going to trample all over everyone; she's a careerist; how dare she get ideas above her station?”

As a result, “The top jobs are seen as ‘men's work’ and it makes women feel like they can't apply because society makes them feel that they aren't good enough. Some of the most able and experienced women I know still doubt themselves and this is something we must try to change.”


In the Labour party, Clements says, “we still have a way to go to overturn the political culture which privileges straight white men.” On BAME representation among elected mayors, Labour is doing better, she notes, citing London’s Sadiq Khan and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. “This should be our incentive to improve the representation of women among elected mayors.”

Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, points out that 45 per cent of Labour MPs are now female. “This is a brilliant achievement and one that other parties could, and should, learn from.” But it took all-women shortlists to get there. “It is unacceptable for 51 per cent of the population to not be accurately represented in parliament.”

But all-women shortlists are currently illegal for mayoral races, as the 2010 Equalities Act specifies AWS are only available for Parliamentary, devolved, and local government races. So what can the Labour Party do to address the gender imbalance?

Gill points to the Labour Women’s Network. “It’s an extremely empowering internal organisation, which I am very proud to be a part of. It does a great job in supporting and identifying talent in women, but this needs to expand nationally.”

“The 2010 Equalities Act needs to be changed,” Clements says, as this would allow for mayoral races to be included in its remit. “While the Women’s PLP lead the charge on this, we should select our Metro Mayor candidate in the West Midlands via an all-women shortlist and wait to see what happens.”

For now, this would be illegal, but the reprimands are unclear and doing so would ensure the topic is talked about more widely.

Brennan, meanwhile, talks about the underrepresentation of working class women specifically. “It’s also good for women to have role models too. I look at Angela Rayner and think, ‘she was a teenage mum too, if she can do it so can I’.”

Mayoral elections are unlike parliamentary or council ones: if you can’t stand for mayor in one region, it’s very unlikely there’s another nearby you could try instead. So should we be worried that all-women shortlists block more qualified male candidates from becoming mayor somewhere?

“No,” Clements says emphatically. “I worry that for decades patriarchal political culture has blocked women from progressing to leadership positions.”

Mayoral politics doesn’t have to be dominated by men, Gill argues. “If we look at the United States it’s a very different picture. There are women mayors leading governments in many urban areas. European capitals like Rome, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, and Stockholm also have women mayors. Clearly the UK is lagging behind despite having no shortage of talent.”

So – would any of these specific women consider a run? “I'm just getting to grips with being a newly elected councillor,” Brennan says, “so I would rule myself out.” Gill didn’t comment.

Clements, however, says, “There are more senior women who have more experience than me; I am encouraging them to run and will campaign for them.

“But should no other woman put herself forward I would do so because I don’t want to see a repeat of last time.”

Part of the issue for Labour in the West Midlands last time was that very few candidates, male or female, put themselves forward. Only two men passed the shortlisting interview, with the winner, Siôn Simon, going on to lose what was considered a Labour safe seat. So are there enough interested local women to fill a shortlist?

“Yes,” Clements says, “absolutely, there are lots of talented women across our region who are ready to step up and who will inspire grassroots activists to come out and campaign to take back the elected mayoralty.”

“Of course there are,’ Brennan says. “I think we as party members need to be having conversations with women we think would be great and supporting them to stand.”

Gill adds, “Whether you’re in business or politics, you will know someone who could do the role.”

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.