The paralysis in Parliament means that its time for cities to take the lead

Midlands mayor Andy Street. Image: Getty.

With gridlock in Westminster a distinct possibility for the next five years, now is the time for local leaders, and in particular the new metro mayors, to step up and spur the next wave of innovation and enterprise that will drive the UK’s economy in the post Brexit world.

The outcome of the general election means that – while, clearly national policymaking will not stop – the minority Conservative government’s ability to do anything beyond Brexit, that is substantive and requires political leadership and consensus, will be severely constrained.

It is likely that, over the next five years, delivering any improvements or change on many of the issues that determine our country’s future prosperity and shared growth – the competitiveness of our businesses; the education of our children; the efficiency of our infrastructure; the availability of affordable housing; the quality of our public spaces; and the skills of our workers – Westminster will be only a junior partner.

This situation presents a unique opportunity for local leaders across the country to step up to the plate and drive our country forward. First amongst equals in the local leadership space should be the new metro mayors, who alongside the mayor of London, should build coalitions that encompass city, suburbs and rural areas and that bridge the political divisions that plague our national politics. In both these respects local leadership, already equipped with the pragmatism and experience of working across physical and political divides, will now be more important than ever before.

Under terrible circumstances over the last few weeks we’ve already had a glimpse of how the leadership dynamics within the country are changing. It was the mayors of Greater Manchester and London – Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan – rather than national politicians that led dignified and uplifting responses to the horrific terrorist attacks. In both cases also celebrating the city way of life and reminding the world that their cities remain open for business.

This prominence of local leadership will only increase, and will be in stark contrast to Westminster politics, as the other new metro mayors find their feet and start to set out their ambitions for their places. They can then work together on common causes, such as making the case that the success of the UK relies on the success of its cities.

And while they may not play a formal role in the Brexit negotiations, they could change the broader political context for these decisions – particularly if the shift to giving jobs, investment and growth are central principles guiding the Brexit negotiations gains real traction. After all, the Leave campaign was in part successful because it tapped into a sense that Westminster and Whitehall was remote and didn’t care about them – and in a highly centralised country this is difficult to argue against. Working as a group, the new metro mayors alongside the London Mayor can help address this sense of remoteness and apathy.

To take advantage of the paralysis at the heart of national politics and to differentiate their pragmatic, action-oriented approach from the partisan approach adopted by many national politicians, the metro mayors need to work with public, private and civic leaders from across political and physical divides. Doing this means different communities within their city regions will be represented as part of a positive agenda for economic growth in a post-Brexit world. Labour metro mayor Andy Burnham appointing Conservative Sean Anstee as his skills and employment lead, and Conservative metro mayor Andy Street appointing Solihull Conservative Leader Bob Sleigh as his deputy, are both important symbolic demonstrations of this approach.

While the details are still being worked out, we can be sure that the Conservative’s deal with the DUP will result in more money being allocated to Northern Ireland for jobs, innovation and infrastructure projects over the next five years. To make sure they don’t miss out, the metro mayors will need to act quickly and with clarity to set out how they intend to use their existing powers and funding to deliver concrete policy that will grow the city region economy in a way that promotes and supports innovation and inclusion. This will not only need to be clear to their residents, but also to those parts of Westminster (and beyond) that still need convincing that the mayoral model is a good one.

Not only that, the mayors will also need to set out what extra powers and funding they require from government, and be ready to call them out when political paralysis or civil servant obfuscation undermines their ability to make the investment and policy decisions to grow their economies.

But while the metro mayors can and should unite to demonstrate that strengthening cities means strengthening the economy, national politicians too need to recognise this role. Hung parliament or not, it is essential that MPs from both parties support the current metro mayors and encourage devolution deals to be brokered in the big cities yet to do so.

MPs of urban constituencies from left and right must recognise how a metro mayor gives an identity and a voice to the places they have been elected to represent. If anything, encouraging leadership in major economic hubs will mean national government can get on with Brexit negotiations, knowing that the biggest cities, with the biggest stake in our economic future, are being taken care of and will speak up when they need to.

Whatever happens in Westminster doesn’t need to stop cities doing what they need to do, and it won’t. The mayors of London, Greater Manchester, West Midlands and others have got it covered, they just need to make sure that national government knows it – and encourages them to keep going.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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