George Osborne offered one vision of devolution – but One Yorkshire wants another

Yorkshire: site of the battle for devolution’s soul. Image: Getty.

All eyes are now on Yorkshire. As the government’s devolution programme runs out of steam, England’s largest county has become the battleground for competing visions of what a devolved England might look like.

On one hand is a vision of devolution based on the big cities like Sheffield and Leeds; on the other, is the ‘One Yorkshire’ vision, where power is devolved to the larger regional scale to create a more inclusive form of development that addresses the needs and aspirations of communities beyond the big cities.

What is at stake in this debate?

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, building on his earlier launch of the Northern Powerhouse, the thenn Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, proclaimed his ambition to roll-out devolution across England by creating “metro mayors” for England’s biggest cities. Speaking in Manchester, Osborne was clear that the refusal to introduce a metro mayor would preclude the devolution of power from Westminster.

The location for the speech was significant. For Osborne, Manchester presented a successful model of economic development; he had already secured the agreement of council leaders there to introduce a metro mayor, an arrangement dubbed “Devo Manc”.

In his speech, Osborne asserted that his was “a vision based on the solid economic theory”, arguing that, “There is a powerful correlation between city size and the productivity of its inhabitants.” Metro mayors, governing an entire metropolitan region, were crucial to unlocking economic growth, he claimed.

Osborne was echoing the idea that Britain’s cities have been held back by land-use planning restrictions. and because too much policy attention has been wasted on places that will never have the dynamism of big cities. Allowing market forces freer rein would accelerate their growth based on tech clusters and the attraction of knowledge workers, principally by facilitating the increased supply of housing.

Metro mayors, in other words, would be dealmakers focused on attracting property investors. These views gained strong backing from thinktanks such as the (London-based) Centre for Cities, and initiatives such as the City Growth Commission, led by Osborne’s ally, Lord Jim O’Neill.

The theory is not without merit – but its limits are now apparent and, since Osborne left the stage, fresh ideas have emerged to challenge the Whitehall orthodoxy.

The rethinking begins with the 2016 Brexit referendum result, which has been widely interpreted as pitching north against south and big cities against towns. Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the LSE suggests we should understand Brexit as an instance of “revenge of the places that don’t matter”: the struggling mill towns, declining coastal resorts and former coalfields that have been largely untouched by the growth in big cities.


In England, the neglect of these places has led to the accumulation of social, economic and political problems for the whole of society. Expecting people in these places to move to big cities is unrealistic and unreasonable – not just because it is unaffordable but because it requires them to abandon the strong community networks they rely upon.

Moreover, multiplying towers of glass and steel and cranes on the skyline offer a narrow vison of development. They contribute to short-term improvements in indicators such as GDP and benefit property owners, but also generate increased inequality within and between places, excluding those who cannot get on the housing ladder because they are trapped in low paid jobs.

Labour MP Rachel Reeves has called for a stronger focus on the ‘Everyday Economy’, those sectors that impact of the lives of people away from the tech hubs and luxury flats. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown how reliable and affordable local bus services are crucial to the economic development of disadvantaged places; and improving bus services requires institutional and regulatory changes best achieved at the regional scale. As the Centre for Towns has shown, tackling problems of ageing and ill-health are among the pressing problems in disadvantaged places. Rebuilding material and civic infrastructure – the ‘foundational economy’ – in local communities is a key political task.

New research suggests that large cities are not always the most dynamic engines of growth, and that some smaller and medium-sized cities and rural areas have outperformed them. The OECD cautions against focusing only on “core cities”, identifying “agglomeration costs” such as problems of housing affordability, infrastructure shortages and rising pollution and congestion. It advocates the benefits of well-connected regions of rural communities and networks of smaller, networked cities. Even highly disadvantaged communities contain assets and networks that could become the focus of development.

The idea that economic development can be left solely to market forces is the root of many of our problems, but still grips many of our political leaders. Part of the argument for One Yorkshire concerns the strength of its identity. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, has dismissed the idea of One Yorkshire as based on “nostalgia, not economic reality,” while Lord O’Neill has rejected it as “chest-beating slogans”. But Yorkshire identity cannot be denied, nor can it be trumped by appeals to an economic model that does not deliver for enough people. The Sheffield Citizens’ Assembly showed a clear preference for a Yorkshire scale of government. 

Yorkshire identity is not just a potentially powerful international brand but represents civic capital and the basis for a shared collective project. Bavarian identity, expressed among other ways through its powerful state parliament, does not appear to have prevented Munich from becoming one of the world’s most prosperous and liveable cities. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, states that a sense of identity, as much as price signals, shapes our economic decision-making. It can underpin a sense of common purpose and influences behaviour in ways that conventional economists overlook.

Luxury flats and high-end offices in city centres are insufficient to raise living standards in the regions. Leeds City Council’s decision to develop an inclusive growth strategy is a recognition of this. One Yorkshire is also a response to the weaknesses of developer-led, city-centric policies.

This is not to deny that cities are important, but rather to suggest the regional scale is able to address links between dynamic places and their hinterlands, smaller cities, towns and coastal and rural areas. The appeal of One Yorkshire lies in its promise a more holistic, integrated and inclusive economic and social vision for the region. It remains to be seen which vision of devolution will triumph, but the choices are clear.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University College London.

 
 
 
 

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.