The story of 1980s Liverpool shows what happens when a city tries to rebel

Liverpool, more recently than the 1980s. Image: Getty.

In June 1984, Patrick Jenkin, the minister responsible for housing in Margaret Thatcher’s government, went to Liverpool. His trip came at a time of stand-off between the government and the hard left Labour council, which was refusing to enforce the cuts the former was demanding of an already struggling city. 

Jenkin was taken on a tour of some of the city’s worst slums; councillors had asked the disgruntled residents ahead of time to be polite. The plan worked. Jenkin emerged from the rat-infested terraces and declared: “I have seen houses here the likes of which I have never seen before.” 

As far as political epiphanies go, Jenkin’s Liverpool enlightenment left Iain Duncan Smith’s Easterhouse epiphany in the dust. Backroom channels opened between the council and the Cabinet. That summer, a deal was hammered out, with the help of a lot of creative accounting. 

And so, Liverpool’s brinkmanship seemed to have paid off. Despite the discomfort of central leadership, other Labour-held cities were so impressed that they began to plan their own act of defiance against Thatcher's plan to make them cut spending. Those involved included future household names, including David Blunkett (Sheffield) and John McDonnell (Lambeth). 

The idea behind what became known as the 1985 “rate-capping rebellion” was simple: no council would set a rate - the forerunner to council tax – for the following year. This allowed councils to avoid the politically toxic decision of raising taxes or cutting spending while in turn forcing the Westminster government to give up its plan of outsourcing austerity, or directly intervene. As the biggest rebel of the lot, Liverpool felt obliged to join in, although even at the time many councillors – including those on the left – feared that it would end in disaster. 

And that was pretty much what happened. One by one, the councils caved in. Some leaders were overruled after Labour councillors defected to the opposition. Others were sufficiently scared by the threat of legal action to find a fudge. Meanwhile, the Labour leadership made its opposition clear and, with the Miners’ Strike over, Thatcher was ready for her next battle. 

Finally, just Liverpool and Lambeth were left. In June, Liverpool set a rate – although such a ridiculously low one it effectively meant an illegal budget. Support for this gesture was remarkably wide. According to the writer Michael Parkinson, one defiant backbench councillor said at the time: “I’m not a Marxist, I don’t even believe in all this political stuff. I just don’t think it’s fair.” In Lambeth, a legal budget was eventually passed in July 1985, but not before one councillor put another in a headlock

Despite these final acts of defiance, the rate-capping rebellion ended in failure. The Lambeth and Liverpool councillors were expelled and pursued through the courts. Thatcher sacked Jenkin, the minister who’d been so moved by what he saw in Liverpool and passed new laws setting deadlines for council budgets. Councils have never again launched such an audacious attempt to force the government’s hand.

This is despite a decade of Tory-led governments imposing crippling austerity. “Today we are seeing even deeper cuts to local authority funding,” wrote Blunkett, by then a retired New Labour minister, in 2011. But, unlike the 1980s, he added, “The revolutionary fervour, sadly, does not exist”. In fact, an anti-austerity movement would emerge, only to focus its energy on Jeremy Corbyn in Westminster. 

This plan, too, failed. But whatever ideological rearrangement happens in the national Labour party, the fact remains that local government has absorbed billions of cuts. Libraries are closing, and social care is in crisis. If councils end up leading another rebellion, it won’t be out of fervour, but necessity. 

Julia Rampen digital night editor of the Liverpool Echo and the creator of The Brink podcast, a deep dive into Liverpool politics at the time of Militant. It’s available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox and Entale.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.