“We’re not a borough”: why is the City of London putting a school in an underground car park?

The Barbican Centre. Image: Getty.

If you were scouting ideal locations to build a prestigious preparatory school for girls, how high up the list would you put a windowless, concrete underground car park built in 1973?

If you were on the Board of Governors of the City of London School for Girls, you would apparently put it first on the list.

In January, the City’s top-ten independent girl’s school (annual fee: £17,000) announced that its preferred location for its new prep school is the car park beneath Thomas More House, one of the love-them-or-hate-them brutalist blocks of the Grade II listed Barbican Estate. (Full disclosure: I live there, and I love them.) The current school is located in purpose-built premises in the middle of the estate.

It would honestly be difficult to come up with a worse location to educate girls aged 7-11. The car park is underground. It receives very little natural light. It suffers from water ingress (several of the parking spaces are unusable for this reason).

It has no ventilation. It has one narrow access road, and is located off a busy street with no space for parents in large luxury off-road vehicles to drop off their children. And like much of the Barbican, it’s riddled with asbestos.

It’s hard to see how the school fits the government’s own standards – “Good quality daylight within the learning environment is essential,” says the Education Funding Agency. Perhaps this is an advantage of being an independent school. You are free to deprive children of daylight for six hours a day in return for £17,000.

Not only does the car park have these problems, but the school has far better options close by: the virtually-unused Barbican Exhibition Halls, and, even better, the London College of Fashion’s Golden Lane building, soon to be vacated and just over a quarter of a mile away.

So how on earth can these plans even have progressed beyond a governor’s fever dream, and become a genuine possibility? The answer lies in the arcane, medieval and baffling governance structures of the City.

Shortly after I was elected last year, one long-standing member described the City of London Corporation to me as, “One third local authority, one third lobbyist for financial services, one third historical re-enactment society.”

This was brought home to me when I was fitted for my robe. Yes, I have a robe. It has fur cuffs.


The City’s unique status as the oldest democratic body in the UK has created lots of quirks in its status, and they lead to bizarre situations like this. The school plan looks at first glance like a London borough gifting enormously valuable central London real estate to a private school.

But, the City of London argues, we’re not a borough. And legally, it’s right. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave the City special dispensation to ignore the overhaul of how London was governed – and there are all kinds of subsequent local government legislation that doesn’t apply there.

All the same, the City receives council taxes, maintains roads, collects rubbish, decides planning applications, runs libraries, and licenses restaurants and bars, just like any London borough does. In simple terms, it quacks like a duck. No other local authority could get away with gifting publically-owned land to a private school. The City should not either, regardless of the smoke and mirrors it might use.

The other big problem here is that the City is on both sides of the negotiating table. The City of London, a local authority that owns the freehold of the entire Barbican, intends to gift the car park to the City of London, the administrator of a private school).

This conflict of interest arises pretty frequently, such as when the City of London has to decide planning applications made by… the City of London. It may not surprise you to learn that the City approved 99 per cent of planning applications in the 12 months to September 2017.

The ‘school in a car park’ plan is a perfect example of why local authority reform has happened over the last 200 years. Because if you don’t improve the systems, mad things happen. Until serious reform takes place, the Square Mile will remain more prone to mad things than most local authorities.

Richard Crossan is a Labour member of the City of London’s Court of Common Council, representing the ward of Aldersgate.

 
 
 
 

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:

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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.