Here are five predictions for what will shape Britain’s cities this year

For a start, we'll probably hear more from this guy: London's mayor Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

Last year was one which confounded predictions and wrong-footed experts in everything from politics to football. But I buy Nesta’s argument that accuracy isn’t everything when it comes to predictions. Thinking about possible futures informs our plans, even if they have to change in light of unexpected events.

With that in mind, here are my predictions about five big issues that will shape the rest of this year for city regions.

First, the rules of global politics and economics will change, with a move towards increased protectionism from some and growing concerns about immigration everywhere. 

Last year’s backlash against globalisation is set to continue with the arrival of President Trump, committed to reintroducing tariffs, revitalising America’s manufacturing industries and working on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis. The French and German elections, whatever their outcome, are set to have wide-ranging implications for the EU and its constitution and, of course, for Brexit negotiations.

All of these changes will affect trade not just internationally but also at the city region level, with different implications depending on the industrial and workforce make-up of each area.

The combination of Brexit with such significant changes in political leaders in the US and EU means that international politics will dominate the national policy agenda this year. It will colour almost every other policy debate and absorb a substantial proportion of ministerial and civil service time, to the exclusion of many other issues – potentially including devolution, which requires considerable policy untangling in such a centralised country.

However, amid international economic upheaval, it is even more important that the UK government does all it can to support city regions up and down the country to thrive. That means, paradoxically, there’s a chance (it may be a slim one but here’s hoping) that the government ends up engaging in more wholesale devolution to city regions to free itself to deal with these international challenges.

Second, as government seeks to support domestic growth, the tension between economics and politics will continue to grow, exemplified by the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy’s recommendations. 

Government needs to support economic growth and boost productivity as quickly as possible in order to raise wages and improve living standards. Economic evidence suggests the way to deliver results quickly is to concentrate investment and resources on the areas that are already successful. This will deliver the fastest, and generate higher levels, of growth and taxes for the UK as a whole.

Yet we already know that the way the UK has supported economic growth in the past has not delivered enough benefit for enough people. This is further bolstered by the fact that many who voted for Brexit and Trump did so in part because they felt their living standards had not improved in recent years. Politicians need to deliver an economy that “works for all” - one that has high productivity and helps the people and places that have been left behind.

But there is no easy way to do this; the risk is that, as economic and political pressure grows, the government ends up investing in policies that history shows neither help growth nor help the more disadvantaged areas – for example, building innovation campuses in deprived communities that lack the skills, business demand or infrastructure to support them to grow rapidly, or for locals to benefit from any jobs created.

The industrial strategy will need to grapple with this. Greg Clark’s commitment to a place-based approach is encouraging but expectations are high, probably too high. To be regarded as successful, the industrial strategy will need to set the tone and pave the way for the UK’s sustainable future growth, make the most of limited funds to invest in innovation and support economic growth, and respond to demands that something happens now for those who are left-behind.

The industrial strategy will shape domestic economic policy for the foreseeable future, and city regions will need to be at the heart of its development and implementation.


My third prediction is that distrust in politicians and the "elite" will continue to grow, with metro mayors and local politics offering new opportunities for national parties to connect with the electorate.

National politicians face stupendous difficulties in delivering on the high expectations of a divided electorate. Take Brexit – the Conservatives need to agree a deal that delivers on all the campaign promises, while holding together its small majority. Labour needs to work out what deal will work best for the 70 per cent of its constituencies who voted Leave and who UKIP is looking to poach, while at the same time as not antagonising its Remain supporters, who the Liberal Democrats are courting. This task will be made more difficult by the lack of trust among the electorate of national politicians and the elite in particular.

Local politics, and the incoming metro mayors in particular, offers new opportunities for national parties to reconnect with a sceptical, divided electorate. The election of city region mayors in May creates a new opportunity for all of the national parties to reinvent themselves and reconnect with the electorate – one recognised by big names like Andy Burnham and Andy Street.

For Labour, there’s an opportunity for mayors to show that Labour can deliver demonstrable change grounded in local priorities rather than political ideology. For the Conservatives, there’s a chance to demonstrate their relevance and value to urban voters, such as in the West Midlands, that have otherwise largely ignored them.

This is not to suggest it will be easy for mayors to build trust. It is a new role and will take time to make a difference. One of the big challenges the new metro mayors will face – as our work on lessons for metro mayors highlights – is setting the tone for the future of the role, as well as for their term. Communicating their aspirations early on, and ensuring they make a start on delivery, will be vital, even if substantial change takes time.

Fourth, 2017 will be a year in which UK city regions and metro mayors rethink their national and international roles.

Across the world, there is a global shift towards mayors being regarded as the pragmatic responses to ideological impasses at national level – the people who not only ensure that services run and potholes are filled, but also those who can take tangible action to tackle big issues like climate change. Global networks such as Benjamin Barber’s Global Parliament of Mayors and C40’s Climate Change Leadership Group will become increasingly important to city leaders keen to make the most of international links and learn from each other about tackling global problems.

Cities will also be looking to pioneer new ways of doing things, with big data and "smart cities" likely to become of increasing interest as cities consider how best to support economic growth and respond better to the needs of their residents and visitors.

Finally, throughout 2017 the nature of work will continue to change, which will impact people and places in different ways. 

Since the recession, the UK has seen strong jobs growth, tepid GDP growth and zero productivity growth. Policy needs to sustain the first and tackle the second and third issues. As the UK continues to specialise in knowledge intensive jobs and industries, skills are becoming more important to individuals’ opportunities and are likely to become a growing policy priority as the government seeks to make it a country that works for everyone.

At the same time, technological advances continue to alter the nature of work, creating the opportunities and challenges of automation, remote working and the gig economy. Job security and in-work poverty will continue to be big challenges facing national and local government. Fixing the skills deficit in the UK will not be easy or quick.

We already know that there are big policy changes on their way this year that will affect the UK labour market in different ways across the country. The National Living Wage will have the biggest impact on low paid cities such as Sheffield, where 28 per cent of people will get a pay rise in April. Questions remain about the long-term impact this will have on future growth – firms replacing people with robots, firms cutting or adding jobs, firms increasing their productivity – particularly in low waged cities.

If 2016 was the year of big decisions about Brexit and Trump, 2017 will be the year these are acted upon. While we know that the fundamentals of what makes city economies thrive have not changed – skills, infrastructure, innovation – how these fundamentals will be affected over the coming year is less clear. 

City regions will be vital to the UK making the most of its new role in the world – we need to do all we can in the months ahead to ensure they are well positioned to do so.

Alexandra Jones is chief executive of the Centre for Cities. 

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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.