So which English cities are actually getting devolution deals?

Steve Roteram and Andy Burnham, Labour's candidates for mayors of the Liverpool and Manchester city regions. Image: Getty.

This May, an indeterminate number of English cities, city regions and other combined authorities will elect their first metro mayors.

These mayors won’t be powerful local bosses on the American or European model – but like London’s Sadiq Khan, they will be able to promote their region, and will have a hand in tricky things like local infrastructure development. It’s quite possibly the biggest change to English municipal government in 40 years or so.

You might think then, that, four months out, we’d be able to tell you exactly how many of these new mayors there were going to be, and which cities they’d be representing. You would be wrong: while the government has been very enthusiastic in putting out press releases every time a deal is agreed, it’s tended to be less forthcoming when, with distressing frequency, they’ve collapsed once again.

But the clock is ticking, so – with a little help from Ed Clarke at the Centre for Cities – we decided it was time we started keeping track of what was going on. This week, we’re doing our best to answer an unexpectedly difficult question: which areas are actually getting mayors?

Absolutely probably definitely

First up, there are three big conurbations that are all but certain to hold elections this May.

Greater Manchester is by far the most coherent city region in England outside Greater London. Its 10 boroughs are used to working together and so, with a little help from former chancellor George Osborne, it has the most advanced and powerful deal. (At some points over the last couple of years, in fact, it’s looked plausible it might be the only deal.)

Most of the major parties have now picked their candidates for this one. The runaway favourite must be Labour’s Andy Burnham: Manchester is traditionally a left-leaning area, and Burnham is a much bigger figure than the Tory candidate, Trafford’s 29 year old leader Sean Anstee. That said, if I were forced to name a party and a politician capable of losing an apparently guaranteed election, “Labour, Andy Burnham” would be near the top of the list.

More certain in electoral terms is the Liverpool City Region (the five boroughs that once made up Merseyside, plus Halton, from Cheshire). That area is so red it would be mind-blowing if Labour's Steve Rotheram didn’t win this one.

The more interesting political tension here is actually likely to be between Rotheram as metro mayor and Joe Anderson, the existing Labour mayor of Liverpool, who failed to get the party’s nomination for the region-wide job (either because he’s not left-wing enough, or because the outer boroughs didn’t want someone from Liverpool-proper). In theory, the metro mayor is the bigger job. But at least some the power in these roles comes from their bully-pulpit function, and “mayor of Liverpool” is frankly the much better job title. This’ll be fun to watch, is what I’m saying here.

Last but not least there’s the West Midlands deal (call it Greater Birmingham at your peril). This covers the old metropolitan county: the three cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, plus four other suburban boroughs.

Electorally this will be by far the most interesting, as it genuinely could go either way. Labour’s Siôn Simon is facing Andy Street, the Conservative former boss of John Lewis – and because the Tories might actually win, the government is likely to throw everything at it. Were I betting man, my money would be on Street. We’ll see.


Definitely maybe

Then there are three deals that are receiving much less attention, because the areas they cover are smaller, and so the candidates are likely to be more obscure.

The Tees Valley – Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and so forth. This lot used to be the made-up county of Cleveland, make up a pretty coherent region, and the deal is probably going ahead.

Then there’s the West of England deal: Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Like the Tees Valley one this was once a non-traditional county (Avon), but it’s lost a bit: North Somerset, which dropped out last summer. The deal will probably go ahead, but the fact not all the Avon councils wanted to play suggests a measure of fragility, as well as the tension between a Labour-voting city and its Conservative commuter belt.

Lastly there’s an area which isn’t a city region at all: Peterborough & Cambridgeshire. Despite talk, this is the only non-metropolitan region likely to get a mayor. That means it’s the only one that’s almost certain to elect a Tory next May.

There’s no reason to think these deals won’t happen – except that sometimes deals collapse over local issues that the rest of us aren’t really aware of until the last minute. Also, because they’re less visible, there’s less momentum: it’s hard to imagine the government abandoning the Liverpool deal at this point; it’s quite plausible it could abandon the Bristol and Bath one.

Even if they do go ahead, these mayors are likely to be less influential figures than those of the big city regions, in terms of both their legal powers, and their effective influence.

The big question mark

There’s one area where it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s happening. The Sheffield City Region was one of the first deals to get a green light, probably because of the support of then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

But it’s remained fairly tormented ever since. The deal at one stage involved councils from three counties (South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire), so there was a row over how the financing would work. Many of the regions’ politicians demanded the extra powers and funding on offer without bothering to elect a mayor, which delayed things, further. And, inevitably there’s the “thou shalt not divide Yorkshire” lobby mucking things up, too.

At any rate, we’re four months out, and it’s not clear if the region is even getting a mayor, or who would run in the election if it did. The smart money has to be on no deal, but who knows.

Never gonna happen – or at least, not this year

And finally, a brief list of the fallen.

The North East – Big regional deal, collapsed after those councils south of the Tyne pulled out because they didn’t want a mayor. It briefly looked like there would be a north-bank-only deal, until someone realised that a metropolitan authority that included Newcastle but not Gateshead would be stupid, and the whole thing went away.

Greater Lincolnshire - “Dead, buried and will not be resurrected”, according to one local big wig.

Norfolk & Suffolk - Died after half a dozen councils pulled out.

D2N2 – Derbyshire/Derby/Notthinghamshire/Nottingham. This one’s gone suspiciously quiet but seems unlikely to happen.

Yorkshire – The demand from rural Tories for a Yorkshire-wide deal probably killed off any chance of a Leeds City Region, and may have ultimately helped finish off Sheffield too. Nonetheless, there doesn’t look likely to be a Yorkshire deal any time soon either, so well done there.

That, best we can tell, is where things stand – but, as I said at the top of this thing, there’s surprisingly little transparency surrounding this entire process. If you know better, honk.

Thanks to Ed Clarke, the Centre for Cities and the good people of Twitter for their help on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.