London needs a bolder relationship with its immediate neighbours

Greater, Greater London. Image: Google.

It’s a classic tale of urban growth: people and businesses move out to find cheaper space, cities absorb other towns in their commuter belt, and politics have to catch up.

For London, this creates challenges at very large scale. The city is core to a much greater economic region, the Wider South East, which is home to over a third of the country’s population and jobs. This Southern Superhub has done well economically: in the last five years, it made up for 53 per cent of service sector jobs creations in the UK. A record number of people commute across the London boundary, and many London firms have offices, suppliers and clients in other Wider South East cities.

The challenges of high living costs, low pay and crowded transport are also straddling boundaries. The government has calculated that the Wider South East will need 1.5m homes by 2026 – but most local authorities inside and outside London have struggled to meet previous, lower housing targets. As cash-strapped local authorities feel unable to accommodate rapid change, the relationship between London and its neighbours has in some places turned sour.

Housing is by far the most contentious topic. Both sides have blamed each other over “whose growth” it is, and whether they are doing enough to accommodate it. Several neighbours are annoyed that London has ruled out changes to its greenbelt land, when they are reviewing their own to find space for housing. Some at the Greater London Authority are frustrated that several other councils have blocked attempts to collaborate over housing and transport investment.

Until recently, London mayors have not really focused on engaging surrounding jurisdictions in their decisions. They have no legal requirement to agree any strategy with neighbours, and to avoid being seen as reliant on them, all three London mayors decided that the city should accommodate all of its growth. This aligned nicely with the interests of most towns outside, who saw “London overspill” as a threat to their identity.

The economic geography of London and its wider region. Image: Centre for London.

The government did not seek to spark conversations about the region’s future either. Its funding is very centralised and formulaic. Large projects are, more often than not, delivered without a regional outlook: London’s neighbours did not contribute to Crossrail, and the new Lower Thames crossing was not seen as a project of regional importance.

But politics is starting to catch up. Among local political leaders, there is more awareness that London and its neighbours are too connected and dependent for councils to tackle challenges on their own. They also feel remarkably underpowered to address them – they have little control over how they raise and spend public money – and hope that speaking with a common voice will grab government attention.

Several local authorities have been partnering to draft economic and transport strategies, and to make a joint case for greater investment. A group of political leaders representing London and the rest of the Wider South East also meet regularly to strengthen dialogue on shared issues, and this year the Mayor is taking part in their annual summit.

But there are difficult decisions ahead, and we think it’s time for this initiative to step up its ambitions. The Wider South East political group needs to evolve into a forum where decisions can be made, and common asks are taken to government. It needs to become more strategic, and draft a vision for the whole region – an industrial strategy for the Southern Superhub.

Government could do much to support, by rewarding collaboration with additional financial and political freedoms, and long-term infrastructure investment. Reshaping the Minister for London into a senior minister for the Wider South East would be a good start.

Sceptics note that having 156 local authorities speak with a single voice is close to impossible. But the urgency of challenges facing the region, and the progress made in the last few years, suggests that much could be achieved with the right government incentives.

Nicolas Bosetti is a senior researcher at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

Next-door Neighbours has been jointly published by Centre for London, the capital’s dedicated think tank, and the Southern Policy Centre, the think tank for central southern England.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.