“We let algorithms redesign Scotland’s local government boundaries.” Here’s what happened

Glen Coe. The Highlands council areas are sparsely populated, wherever you draw the boundaries. Image: Getty.

There are certain things a wise politician would never tinker with: big issues such as council tax reform, which are placed in the “too difficult” box and remain unaddressed and unresolved for decades. Another such item is the redrawing of local government boundaries.

It’s not exactly a glamorous topic and, as BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor noted in 2012, “it is a courageous politician indeed who tampers with cooncil boundaries”/

Over the past few years in Scotland, there have been calls to reform council boundaries, and give local authorities a greater say in decisions made at Holyrood. But so far, nothing has been done and the current set of 32 Scottish council areas remain.

Ripe for reform

Despite the political risk associated with boundary reform, other governments across the world have grasped this particular nettle, because it can lead to more efficient governance and cut costs.

Recent regional rejigs in Denmark and France show that it can be done. And we believe an algorithmic approach can at the very least contribute to the debate. In France, the so-called “big bang des régions” of 2016 resulted in a total of 13 new regions, from a previous set of 22.

So, we thought it would be useful to make some suggestions about what a revised Scottish council geography could look like. To do this, we used commuting data and an algorithm called Combo, which groups together places with the strongest ties, using a set of rules. And instead of the current set of 32 Scottish council areas, we ended up with 17.

Combo shows how commuting patterns can help define areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

The full set of results and the detailed method can be found in our recently published paper. However, we should emphasise that these are not proposals for new council areas. Instead, we hope our results offer decision-makers some useful evidence on where boundaries could be drawn, if they were based on travel to work patterns.

Of course, commuting is only one part of the story. But it’s a very important part, particularly in places such as Glasgow, where the local economy is highly dependent on commuters living in other areas.

Overall, we think the results are largely plausible. But they also show that, when it comes to drawing boundaries on maps, algorithms definitely shouldn’t have the last word – not least because they don’t have what we might call common sense.

Scotland’s council areas, if they were based on commuting and drawn by algorithm. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

As you can see from the map, there are now 17 areas instead of the current set of 32 – two fewer than those proposed by think tank Reform Scotland in 2012. The most populous of the new areas is Greater Glasgow, with close to 1.2m people. This would make it the largest local authority in the UK.

This is followed by Edinburgh & the Lothians with 835,000. Lanarkshire is next, with 575,000, then Grampian with 476,000 people. These areas are considerably larger than their current equivalents.

Others, like Highland, Moray and Inverclyde stay the same, indicating that some administrative boundaries match existing travel to work patterns quite well. Or, to put it more simply, in some cases political and economic geographies look very similar.

Is or ought?

The table below shows the relationship between our new Combo areas and existing council areas. In the final column, you can see what percentage of the population of each new area comes from existing council areas. For example, 50.8 per cent of our new Greater Glasgow area is from the current City of Glasgow and 57.1 per cent of the new Edinburgh & the Lothians area is from the current City of Edinburgh.

Combo areas compared to current council areas. Image: Alasdair Rae and Ruth Hamilton.

On some levels, these new algorithmic subdivisions make a lot of sense – but others clearly require a human touch. For one thing, it doesn’t look quite right based on our understanding of how places function and how local services are delivered. The fact that 2 per cent of the population of our new Dundee, Perth and Angus area is across the Tay in Fife strongly suggests human intervention is needed.

The second issue relates to Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s “is-ought” question. This is because algorithms are very good at telling us what is, but they cannot tell us what ought to be.


For example, the algorithm suggests that Inverclyde is an entirely separate area. But given how close it is to our Greater Glasgow area, from a human and common sense perspective, it appears that it ought to be part of Greater Glasgow. Indeed, such a geography would match the current NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde region.

We need to recognise that algorithms are effectively blind to questions of history and identity. For example, our new boundaries know nothing of the Kingdom of Fife, or the Pictish Kingdom that preceded it. Yet such history often matters deeply to people and places.

This is where human decision-making, nuance and common sense come in, and why – when it comes to “too difficult” issues such as local boundary reform – humans should have the final say. But in getting to that point, we believe algorithms can certainly lend a helping hand.

The Conversation

Alasdair Rae, Professor in Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield and Ruth Hamilton, Teaching Associate, University of Sheffield.

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

 
 
 
 

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.