Three thoughts on the politics of Italy’s cities

Rome! Image: Bert Kaufmann/Wikimedia Commons.

In a World Cup year, most Italians talk about one thing only: the national football team. But as Italy did not qualify for this summer’s tournament, the general elections in March and their aftermath have instead been the main topic of conversation for people in cities across the peninsula.

The international media coverage has largely focused on the implications of the new populist coalition government for Europe. However, the elections and their aftermath also raise interesting questions about the changing political outlook of cities across Italy, and the challenges this poses to national policy-makers. These issues have relevance to UK politics too - and in this blog, we unpack what we think are the three main takeaways from the Italian situation.

1) In a divided country, top-down policy-making is increasingly inadequate

Like the UK, Italy also has a North-South divide. But it is the other way round: in 2016 GDP per capita in the South was 44 per cent lower than in the Centre-North area.

This economic divide has given rise to a political divide, too. For the first time in Italian politics, no party can claim to represent the whole country. This has resulted from a clear north-south split. The League – a rebranding of the old Northern League – remains the party of the economically successful North, and it continues to make lower migration and lower taxation its main priorities. The Five Star Movement is now the party of the less successful South, where unemployment and low wages are the main issues.

That the parties in power represent different economic realities could mean that the national government takes into account the different challenges that places face, which would certainly be a positive thing. But it could also mean that national policy becomes the sum of different disjointed economic policies rather than a coherent economic strategy.

We see some of the latter happening already. For example, the agreement between the two populist parties proposes both a basic income, a policy of the Five Star Movement, and a flat tax, a policy of the League. The popularity of basic income results from high unemployment in the South. As our European cities data tool illustrates, more than one in four people in cities like Catania, Naples and Palermo is out of work. And a flat tax would mostly benefit Northern Italy, with wages highest in cities such as Bolzano, Milan and Bologna. This results in an incoherent approach to national economic policy.

What this points to is the difficulty of top-down policymaking in a divided country, and the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to policy in addressing the diverse challenges that different places face. Given the extent of the UK’s political and economic divides, this is a lesson policy-makers here cannot afford to overlook.

2) But Italian cities are better placed than UK cities to overcome national political gridlock

In Britain, since the vote for Brexit, many major policy issues have been put to one side so that the government can get on with negotiations with the EU, including the city region devolution agenda. Meanwhile, the Government has also been hamstrung by its failure to secure a clear majority in 2017 general election. Both of these factors have contributed to gridlock and stasis at the national political level, and a lack of clear policy direction for the government.

In Italy, this kind of instability and gridlock at the national political level is nothing new. The peninsula has had 65 governments since 1945, averaging a change in administration every 13 months. However, unlike in the UK – where political power remains largely concentrated in Westminster – decentralisation has been an essential feature of the Italian system since the early days of the post-WWII republic, and has been enhanced since.

As a result, regions and Italian metropolitan cities have powers over, among other things, infrastructure, strategic development, schools and integrated services provision. This means that in times of national stalemate – which in the Italian case is more often than not – places are still able to take action and tailor policy to their needs.

Despite the progress made in city region devolution in the UK over recent years, urban areas across the country still lack the powers and resources they need to grow their economies. The government should use its forthcoming Devolution Framework to as an opportunity to go further on this front, with the immediate priority being to extend devolution deals to the remaining big cities in England yet to agree one.


3)  Mainstream parties should not take cities for granted

While populist parties have made gains across Italy, the centre-left and left remain mainly in charge of large cities (Milan, Naples, Palermo) with the centre-right keeping control of a few others (Genoa, Venezia). And this is also what we saw in the recent metro-mayoral elections in the UK with Labour and Conservatives winning all the posts.

But mainstream parties should not take cities for granted. Firstly, while local elections are not isolated from national politics, they can also act as referenda on the candidate or the record of incumbent mayors/councillors, making them open to outsiders. And Italy provides an example of this complex relationship between local and national politics, as well as the possibility of a political shift at the local level.

For example, after years of poor administration by both the centre-left and centre-right in Rome, political control of the city passed into the hands of the insurgent Five Star Movement in 2016. And in the most recent local elections, the League has won cities in Tuscany that for decades have been the strongholds of the centre-left.

There are two lessons here for the UK. Firstly, there is no room for complacency among mayors and other city leaders, who need to deliver on their economic agenda and make the most of their mandate to avoid the kind of backlash against mainstream parties seen in Italian cities.

Secondly, the national government needs to empower city leaders with the tools and funding they need to address the challenges their places face. This will not only be crucial for the prosperity of their cities: it will also be important in staving off the political disillusionment which was evident in the vote for Brexit.

In both Italy and the UK, the political outlook for the coming years is deeply uncertain. But what is clear is that empowered cities, which have real scope to act on the issues that matter most to their economies, have the best chance of thriving in times of national political stasis.

Italian cities are well-placed to do so, but the same is not true of UK cities. This needs to change if people and places across the country are to prosper.

Gabriele Piazza and Elena Magrini are researchers at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared. You can hear them discussing the politics of Italian cities on Skylines, the CityMetric podcast, here.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, which was agreed in the 1950s and opened in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as part of the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simpler: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.