There’s one English county whose county town is in a different county

Kingston Bridge. Image: KTO288/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not unusual, when you have an area with two big towns that dominate it, to stick the capital in a more neutral place. Australia has Canberra because of Melbourne and Sydney’s rivalry; Brazil has Brasilia because Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are in much the same boat.

This is less common in the UK. London, Cardiff and Belfast are by far the biggest towns of their constituent countries, and Edinburgh gets to be the capital despite being rather smaller than Glasgow because the ‘thousands of years of history’ card is a strong one.

What is very unusual anywhere – outside of actual colonies – is to have your capital in a completely different place from the territory it governs. Even the people of West Germany recognised this, with West Berlin being an odd semi-occupied zone rather than the capital of their country. This was instead in Bonn, a lovely but boring country town that you should absolutely visit, and which filled the kind of role as capital that John Major did as Prime Minister.

And yet, if you’re a Londoner, you’re within an Oyster ride of precisely this arrangement. And you don’t even have to leave the city’s boundaries.

The county of Surrey, as it’s defined these days, is a pipe-shaped lump of land that roughly tracks the south-western quadrant of the M25, stretching from the M3 to the M23, and running until you run out of suburbia and hit real countryside. Or, if you prefer public transport, South Western Railway’s outer-suburban trains. It’s slightly further out of London than Reginald Perrin or The Good Life, but closer in than Butterflies or the Vicar of Dibley.

But it used to be grand. Almost all of what is now South London was in the mediaeval county of Surrey. The Canterbury Tales were written there, Shakespeare’s plays were debuted there; the things that the guilds who controlled the City of London didn’t like took place there. And the county town of Surrey was in what is now Walworth, one of the bits of inner south London that the Tube map still doesn’t quite feature, but within half an hour’s walk of Bank.

By the 1880s, it was clear that London had spread beyond the borders that ancient English rules had laid down, and so the London County Council was created, encompassing pretty much everywhere we’d now think of as Inner London. This very much included Walworth.

Surrey lost some of its most shady and interesting inner London parts (not, necessarily, to the shame of the people involved in the rest of it) and quite sensibly built a new County Hall in a town that was part of Surrey.


Kingston-upon-Thames, when County Hall was constructed in 1893, was a river resort and retreat, and the kind of town that the wealthiest of railway commuters might be willing to head to London from, whilst living a relatively disease-free rustic life. As such, it symbolised Surrey’s aspirations perfectly.

But then more development happened.

The county of Greater London was created in 1965, reflecting the suburbanisation that the mainstreaming of railways and the Underground had brought to the city, turning former commuter-belt towns into outright suburbs and villages into new towns. In the interim, Kingston had been linked into London with further rail and road-building. So, to nobody’s great surprise, Kingston-upon-Thames became part of Greater London in the 1965 review.

If you were sensible, you might think that Surrey would run another 1893 attempt, and shift its County Hall to somewhere that was, well, in it. But you’d be wrong.

Surrey has ancient rivalries, of the sort that normally only manifest themselves in football teams. Its two most prominent settlements are Guildford and Woking. The former is ancient and fancy; the latter is wealthy and diverse and more directly integrated into London. They hate each other at least as much as Melbourne and Sydney. Meanwhile, the people in the country towns that make up the south of the county hate Guildford and Woking.

For the last 60 years, politicians have been making half-arsed attempts to solve this problem. In 2003, the council managed to agree on an attempt to build a new County Hall in Woking, but the money ran out. As of 2017, MPs for small towns still try to play on regional patriotism to sort out enormous absurd pork barrels, and get shot right down again.

And the strangest thing is, nobody particularly cares. It’s become completely normal for the people of Surrey over the last 50 years to accept the fact that their capital is in a different place from their actual county, to the point where they aren’t even interested.

I can’t help but think of another question here: if habituation is that easy, how on earth did we fail to make the case for the EU?

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.