Oxford vs Middlesbrough: on the urban geography of Brexit

Brexit is depressing so here are some kittens. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Last week, I wrote – at surprisingly great length – about a map who showed Tory fortunes in Britain's cities during last year's elections. Short version: badly.

Medium length version: the party's strategy was to attempt to attract Leave voters by

a) pushing for a full-fat version of Brexit, and

b) being quite rude about Remainers.

Sadly – for a certain value of sad – this seemingly alienated more affluent Remainers without doing much to attract less affluent Leavers. Aww. Here's that map, from the Cities Outlook 2018 report, again. To its left is a map of the referendum result:

Click to expand.

You can at least see what the Tories were thinking. Those dark green dots in the left-hand map represent particularly leave-y cities, and – outside the Thames Estuary, at least – they're by and large a litany of Labour areas. A Tory party that could win Doncaster, Middlesbrough or Hull is a Tory party that would be pretty much unassailable.

In practice, of course, it didn't work out like that. What we actually got was a Tory party that made remarkably little progress in Doncaster or Hull, actually lost ground in Middlesbrough, and managed to place itself beyond contention in Oxford, Brighton and Exeter, so well done there.

It's also worth noting how the referendum itself played out across the country. Those really dark green blobs – where the Leave side won 63 per cent of the vote or more, effectively a lead of at least 25per cent – are largely smaller, post-industrial cities: places where the old industrial economy has died but which, unlike Manchester or Leeds, have struggled to attract service businesses that depend on deep labour pools.

But there is an exception to this rule. It's those smaller cities in the Thames estuary: Basildon, Southend, Chatham. There may be cultural factors at work here: Essex has long been thought fertile territory for the more jingoistic forms of Tory-ism, but that's a culture you can also find in northern Kent (but not, strangely, northern Essex, which is much more East Anglian in tone). As I've written before, for all the talk of the rich South East, wages and productivity also tend to be lower to the east of London. Since the referendum was a generalised "everything is not okay" sort of a vote, economics may well have been a factor here too.

On the other side of the fence, the most Remain-y cities in England and Wales tended to be university towns, big cities, or both. Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton are the obvious examples. But elsewhere in the country, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds and York are all notably more remain than the cities around them.

There are two partial exceptions to this. Neither Birmingham nor Manchester look like particularly Remain-friendly territory on this map. My guess is that's a boundary thing: the Centre for Cities' definition of Brum includes Wolverhampton (sorry) and a number of other contiguous suburbs, and its Manchester contains every borough in Greater Manchester except Wigan. While the cities themselves have proposed, some of their suburbs have, like so many other post-industrial areas, been left behind.

Here's a quick chart before we go. This one plots the EU referendum result against cities; prospects for developing high-skilled private sector jobs. In other words, cities on the right of the chart are the most likely to boom, those on the left the most likely to struggle.

Click to expand.

The correlation screams at you. As the report says, the chart

shows a negative relationship between the referendum result and the share of jobs projected to grow which are high-skilled. The implication is that if patterns of job creation in the future reflect those of the past then the political divide illustrated by the referendum result will likely grow wider.

Or to put it another way: in places which voted for Brexit because their economies are rubbish, the economy is likely to get worse.

If anyone can think of any good news, please do write in. In the mean time, you can read the rest of Cities Outlook 2018 here.

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

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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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