If Britain is to thrive outside Europe, it must empower its medium sized cities

Coventry: a medium sized city crying out for a little empowerment. Image: Getty.

The truth of the past month is that a long-brewing crisis of our politics has finally erupted. It is not my job to pick over the reasons underpinning the Brexit vote; the British people have spoken, and their decision must be implemented in as coherent and orderly a fashion as possible.

Looking at the voting numbers which so painfully demonstrated the reality of a divided country, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a couple years ago on the potential role of cities and devolution in uniting the country. The Key Cities Group was created to advocate for increased powers to cities – not so that cities can go it alone, but because we believed that by empowering individual cities, you can create strong communities and thus build a better Britain. Indeed, I still believe that with greater powers to cities, we can have a more vibrant and united country, with prosperity more evenly spread.

Underlining this train of thought, IPPR North recently published an excellent report – City systems: The role of small and medium-sized towns and cities in growing the northern powerhouse – which highlights how cities like our members are critical to this effort. It serves as a reminder that we cannot let the political drama of the referendum fall-out and ensuing soap opera distract us from the good work we have embarked upon to spread economic development throughout the country through the devolution process.

The IPPR report provides a warning against adopting a uniform approach to devolution, on the assumption that only one kind of city can prove successful in a global economy. Instead, the report encourages us to view the success of different cities, not as some natural phenomenon in urban development, but as the product of deliberate public policy decisions.

London, for instance, was a shrinking city in decline for much of the 20th century – but its position in a new global economy, and new devolved powers unlocking huge investment in infrastructure, have seen it become a world success. Manchester has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in the last 20 years to become the centre of growth in northern England. We have to take the same attitude toward our mid-sized cities.

There is no reason, though, why they cannot also experience a remarkable turnaround. The IPPR report refers to several, interesting examples of how and where this has been achieved, and there are so many more mid-sized cities with huge potential. As the IPPR report emphasises, there is no correlation between population and productivity in the UK: indeed, as both IPPR and our own report with ResPublica last year demonstrated, mid-sized cities have seen their Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy grow at the same rate as other cities since the recession almost 10 years ago. What we need is a change of mentality as much as anything else.

IPPR has recommended that Key Cities like ours invoke the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and energy of small & medium size enterprises (SMEs). IPPR has also recommended that we identify the role we play in wider urban ecosystems, both with larger cities, and with rural hinterlands who supply markets and workers. And it suggested that critically evaluate where our cities need more capacity and expertise at the local government level, if they are to play their part in shaping regional and national policy.

There is much merit in these suggestions, and they are worth pursuing. I would echo IPPR’s stress on the importance of connectivity – both between cities and between sectors, moving people, moving goods, and moving ideas which promote innovation.

We must cooperate with towns and districts around us, and with our partners in Core Cities to achieve our common vision. To do anything less is to accept that the reality of a divided Britain which we saw on 23 June will be here to stay.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 24 mid-sized cities.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.