Like no council canteen you’ve ever seen: on the drinks menu at the City of London’s Guildhall Bar

The Guildhall, town hall of the City of London. Image: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many questions about the City of London Corporation, the municipal body which governs the oldest part of the capital. When, exactly, this ancient body was founded. Whether it really needs 125 elected officials to oversee a population of less than 10,000. What exactly an “Alderman” does.

Perhaps the most important, though, is why its bar is quite so cheap. Look:

 

Those are not prices you’re going to find anywhere else in the City of London, are they? They’re not prices you’re likely to find in the dirtiest dive bar in zone 6, come to that. £1.25 for a glass of wine? Just 60p for a shot of gin? Really? Okay, there’s no beer on tap, but at these prices we’ll live.

Where can you find such cheap, boozy joy, you ask? In the Guildhall, effectively the City’s town hall. It’s a bit like the staff canteen, except instead of curling sandwiches and lukewarm chips what is on offer is cognac at £1.20 a go.


Alas, you can’t just wander in off the streets: it’s only for members and their guests. How does one become a member, I asked one insider hopefully? “By being elected,” they told me. “Then you remain one forever.” So there goes that idea.

In other words, in the main offices of what is, at heart, a council, there is a massively subsidised member’s bar, which the likes of us can’t get into. Seems legit.

And make no mistake: the City of London Corporation is a council. It may also bang the drum for the financial services industry. It may take care of a few green spaces like Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest. It may even sponsor a few academy schools (something which councils are specifically meant not to do).

But its main role is as a municipal government – very probably the oldest municipal government in the world, in fact. The bar in the Guildhall Club is not just a member’s club: it’s a council facility.

So again I find myself asking: who is subsidising those drinks?

The Corporation, ever a lover of transparency, actually has three sets of financial statements. The “City Fund” covers the cities activity “as a local authority, police authority, and port health authority”. That seems to be the council budget sort of bit.

Then there’s the Bridge House Estates, a registered charity. This started out life as a way of collecting taxes from the bridges to pay for the upkeep of London Bridge, but it’s grown over the years: now it maintains five bridges, and helps other charitable causes through the “City Bridge Trust”. Apparently it can do this because “the funds have been managed effectively over the centuries”, which just goes to show that hard work pays off.

Last but not least there’s the “City’s Cash”:

a fund of the City of London Corporation that can be traced back to the 15th century and has built up from a combination of properties, land, bequests and transfers under statute since that time.

In other words, a sovereign wealth fund. As of 31 March 2016, it had net assets of £2.3bn.

Which of these is subsidising the drinks in the Guildhall bar, I asked the press office? City’s cash, they told me: in other words, the bar tab may be subsidised, but it’s subsidised by the Corporation’s own money, not by stuff drawn directly from the public funds. Fair enough.

But this feels to me like a distinction so fine it’s basically non-existant. For all its special privileges, the City of London Corporation is, primarily, a municipal government: whichever pot of money it’s using to subsidise its members’ bar, it’s still in effect public money.

The fact the City’s Cash fund is the result of centuries of investments, rather than a grant from Philip Hammond, doesn’t change the fact that it is still money that could be used to make the lives of Londoners better, which is instead being used to subsidise drinks for a few old duffers who used to be aldermen. “Consider the counter factual,” my insider told me. “What would Sadiq do with that money?” Quite.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.