Westminster has blocked Sadiq’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street. So are London’s boroughs too powerful?

What might have been: artist’s impression of the pedestrianised Oxford Street. Image: TfL.

For most of its history, London didn’t really exist. The city out-grew its ancient walls many centuries ago; yet right up until the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, the resulting conurbation was run not by the City of London Corporation, but by a patchwork of different parish councils. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to scrap the Greater London Council, 131 years later, has gone down in history as a politically-motivated act of short termism, and it was – but it was also, in some ways, a reversion to tradition.

The capital got its legal identity back in 2000, with the creation of the Greater London Authority. But Sadiq Khan still has fewer levers to pull than, say, Anne Hidalgo in Paris or Bill de Blasio in New York. Being mayor of London is less like being a chief executive than being a feudal lord: getting stuff done tends to involve marshalling forces who have their own priorities, and who are very aware of the fact they don’t answer to you.

Which is why a single borough council has been able to effectively veto one of Khan’s highest profile plans.


Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It’s also horrible: a dirty, smoggy canyon, where the pavements are too narrow and the space between is rammed with buses and the pollutants they spew out. So the idea of pedestrianising it – turning the street into a place it might actually be pleasant to visit – has been talked about for years.

Under Sadiq Khan, it seemed like it might actually happen. The Labour mayor campaigned on the issue and, once elected, instructed Transport for London (TfL) to start quietly restructuring the bus network to make pedestrianisation possible. Last November, TfL unveiled plans to start closing it to traffic from this December, along with the inevitable concept images showing how lovely the new, motor-free Oxford Street would be.

But all this, it turns out, has been a colossal waste of everybody’s time, because Westminster City Council has changed its mind. Last week, its leader Nickie Aiken said in a statement that, following public consultations and council elections, “It was clear... that local people do not support the pedestrianisation proposals.” That may well be correct: over at OnLondon, Dave Hill makes a compelling case that it’s electoral concerns that put the council off.

The thing is, though, that the locals who object to the plan aren’t necessary right. They may have good and sensible reasons for opposing pedestrianisation – perhaps it’ll mean an increase in traffic on their own street, for example. But just because it’ll be bad for them, that doesn’t mean it’ll be bad for those who shop on Oxford Street, or for London as a whole.

TfL’s road network, in red, and the motorways, in blue. Every other road in London is run by the local council. Image: TfL.

But it isn’t London as a whole that gets to decide this one. London’s streets are the domain of its councils – and councils are answerable to their voters. And so, a project that could have benefited all Londoners has been stymied by the objections of a few.

This sort of thing happens with depressing frequency. There are many reasons why TfL has failed to produce a London-wide network of cycling routes (cost, inertia, black cabbies being a pain in the arse). But a big one is that doing so would involve altering streets controlled by the boroughs.

And not all the boroughs will play ball. Some – Camden, Southwark, Tower Hamlets – are quite enthusiastic. But Hackney, despite housing one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the entire country, could not be persuaded that a Cycling Superhighway needed segregated space, and instead sent CS1 down a series of back roads.

Quietway 1 is split into two routes, north and south, each of which stops suspiciously close to the Westminster borough boundary. And not a single scheme has penetrated the borders of Kensington & Chelsea: the borough remains an impenetrable barrier to any route between west and central London.

Neither the mayor nor TfL are empowered to fix any of this. They can persuade. They can cajole. But they can’t command, and if the boroughs don’t want something, then there’s no way of forcing it upon them.

What might have been: the ringways. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

This has not always been a bad thing: not all grand-projets are a good idea. Back in the 1960s, it was big road schemes that were all the rage, and it was only the intransigence of the boroughs that prevented an urban motorway from being driven through Hampstead and Highbury Fields.

Nonetheless, the fragmented nature of London’s local government means that plans to solve the capital’s problems will always be at the mercy of small groups of highly motivated NIMBYs. Unless TfL is granted more powers, at the expense of the boroughs, Oxford Street won’t be the last.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.