If we covered London like the media covers Africa...

Local strongman "Bambo" Johnson taunts his enemies with a traditional gesture. Image: Getty.

Veteran travellers who criss-cross London, Britain’s booming capital, have no shortage of tales of the extraordinary. A cable car, erected at vast expense to the taxpayer, which has few regular passengers. A custom-made bus, intended to symbolise the city’s bright future, which reaches dangerous levels of heat in the summer months. The city’s Olympic Stadium, which has been given over to West Ham, a football club from London’s shanty towns, for an annual rent of just £2.5m, against an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £700m.

It all comes back to “Bambo” Johnson, the eccentric strongman who is still beloved by the natives, now nearing the end of his term of office, but whose reputation for lavishing taxpayer funds on eye-catching projects has called into question the city’s governance.

The latest boondoggle is the soi-disant “Garden Bridge”, the brainchild of one of the region’s most popular performers, who, as the star of the show Absolutely Fabulous, has delighted the townsfolk for many decades. The bridge’s chief architect is not an architect but a designer, Thomas Heatherwick, who has been the preferred target of Bambo’s largesse. It was Heatherwick who designed the new Routemasters, a paean to the capital’s better days, and part of the atavist streak that has global finance increasingly concerned by the city’s turn away from 21st century thinking.


The cost of the Garden Bridge – intended as a memorial to the deceased Princess of Wales, who has something approaching god-like status among the city’s denizens – has skyrocketed over the years. The taxpayer will now end up paying out £60m into its construction, and close to an additional £4m towards its upkeep*.

International observers are pessimistic about the capital’s hopes of reform. The two candidates most likely to succeed Bambo are the leftist Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, a languid aristocrat who favours an “Out” vote in the country’s coming referendum on its membership of the European Union, despite concerns that this will further disadvantage the locals. Both are committed to maintaining the Garden Bridge.

For those hoping for a city administration that blends innovation with genuine rigour, the 2016 election will bring little respite.

*UPDATE: The Garden Bridge Trust has now been in touch, and asked us to publish the following message for our readers:

“The Bridge will not cost the British taxpayer £60m. £30m of public money has been received from the Department for Transport and £30m from Transport for London but £20m of this will be repayable over a period of time. The public will not be paying for £4m a year for maintenance costs either. Maintenance costs are estimated at £2m a year and will be paid for by the Garden Bridge Trust who have a business plan to raise money through the hosting of private events for the costs.

“Also, just to point out that the Bridge is not dedicated to the memory of the late Princess Diana, this was Joanna Lumley’s original idea.  However this aspect was not really looked at again when the idea of the Bridge started to be looked at seriously in 2012. The idea of the Bridge is for people to be able to cross the bridge in their own time and pace and enjoy new views of London in a tranquil setting.”

Stephen Bush is the editor of our sister site, the Staggers

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.