What are the big issues in the Tees Valley mayoral race?

The former SSI steel plant in Redcar. Image: Getty.

The Tees Valley has been labelled the ‘dark horse of devolution’ – and our hustings in the city region in late March gave local residents the first chance to hear from all the candidates hoping to take the reins as metro mayor.

The five candidates making their case at the event, organised in partnership with the Institution for Civil Engineers and Teesside University, came from the four main national parties – Sue Jeffrey (Labour), Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris Foote-Wood (Liberal Democrats) and John Tennant (UKIP) – as well as John Tait from the regionalist North East Party. (No Green Party candidate has been announced as yet.)

Chris Foote-Wood caught attention early with his big infrastructure plans, including a proposal for a hyperloop test track (which could transport people and objects many times faster than high-speed trains) and a “super bridge”. The latter would complement existing plans for a new Tees bridge for which the Combined Authority has already completed a feasibility study – though Foote-Wood did not offer any more detail about what the super bridge would actually entail.

UKIP’s John Tennant also set himself apart early on by emphasising his opposition to the mayoral role, which he believes will bring an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy – and vowing to call a referendum on scrapping the role if he wins on 4 May.

However, he also outlined policies he would implement if he wins the election, but loses the referendum. These included introducing a Tees Valley metro (like that of Tyne and Wear), which would be funded by scrapping both HS2 and the renovation of Darlington station. Tennant also called for a greater focus on vocational skills and apprenticeships, which he argued would serve students and the region far better than the overwhelming focus on university as the next step beyond sixth form.

Improving skills and fixing the further education system was a top priority for the Conservative candidate Ben Houchen (a councillor in Stockton-on-Tees and a local businessman). Houchen bemoaned the “dizzying” profusion of grants and programmes for firms trying to access training funding and talented graduates, which he feels are making these policies unworkable.

Skills was also a theme picked up by John Tait of the North East Party, who pointed out the disjuncture between the increasing demand among firms for skilled graduates and workers and the relatively slow reaction of the further and higher education systems. He praised Teesside University as a “gem of the region” and symbol of the sort of practical, engaged and locally focused ex-polytechnics that are helping to bridge some of the huge skills gaps in the region.

Sue Jeffery, the Labour candidate and leader of Redcar and Cleveland council, emphasised the excellent position the city region had put itself in by agreeing its devolution deal in the first place. She also highlighted her frustration at the lack of borrowing powers in the deal, and pledged to address this if she becomes mayor – enabling the city region to get started on major projects, such as the aforementioned new bridge over the Tees.

A significant part of the event focused on the future of Teesside Airport, which has seen passenger numbers decline dramatically in the past decade. Houchen called for it to be nationalised, while Jeffery argued it would be foolish for the region to burden itself with an already loss-making business. Other candidates remarked on the strangeness of this apparent exchange of traditional ideological positions by the Conservative and Labour candidates, while also highlighting the practical problems arising from the significant distance between the airport and its nearest train station.

The difference of opinion on the future of the airport followed an earlier disagreement over the cost and wisdom of bus franchising. Houchen warned this would tie a financial millstone around the mayor’s neck; while Jeffery outlined her shock to have discovered there were no longer any subsidies for bus routes across the Tees Valley. (There may have been a little misunderstanding here, as the Buses Services Bill explicitly forbids local authorities from actually owning or running services, while free bus passes for pensioners essentially amount to a subsidy for many people in the city region.)

One point of agreement among the candidates was the importance of supporting cycling and walking in the city region. Some of the ideas put forward in the debate included making the roads safer for those on two wheels, integrating transport systems to make walking or cycling easier as part of a longer journey, and ensuring new developments are planned so that they do not necessitate car ownership.

My question on whether any of the candidates would consider concentrating investment in Middlesbrough as a way to boost the wider Tees Valley economy was very politely rejected out of hand. As our recent briefing on the Tees Valley shows, investing in the centre of Middlesbrough would help to attract more high-skilled, high-paying jobs – therefore boosting wages in the city region, and encouraging more of its graduates to stay in the area.

However, John Tait argued this idea is was based on what he described as the “failed theory” of agglomeration. Others suggested that many of the region’s problems actually stem from too much investment being funnelled into Middlesbrough in the first place. These issues will undoubtedly be hotly debated in the Tees Valley as the mayoral elections on 4 May draw closer.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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