The Chinese government is creating a city with twice the population of France

Just another day in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Here in Blighty, the idea of a London of 10 million people still leaves government officials rocking back and forth in terror. So how would they react, one wonders, to the idea of a city of 130 million.

No, that's not a typo. From the South China Morning Post:

"Every administration since Deng Xiaoping's has taken on an ambitious economic project that defines its legacy. For President Xi Jinping, that project is to link 130 million people across Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province into a single megalopolis, the so-called Jing-Jin-Ji region.

(...)

"The thinking behind the policy is probably to turn a vast region with a lot of potential for economic development into a third pole of growth" rivalling [the Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta regions]," said Hongyi Lai, an associate professor of political economy at the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies."

Just to be clear, 130 million is a lot of people. The proposed megacity would be the tenth most populous country in the world, just ahead of Japan. It’s nearly four times the population of Tokyo, currently the world’s largest metropolitan area. You could fit everyone from Britain and France in there, and still find room for the Estonians. It’s big

Slightly disappointingly, the plan seems to be more about economic integration, rather than one solid urban block stretching for 400km. Beijing is the Chinese capital - but it’s both poorer and less open to the world than the two delta regions. This development plan is meant to correct all that.

And doing so will involve a lot of investment in urban infrastructure all the same. Stage one will be the creation of a “Beijing seventh ring road” (which will be, confusingly, the sixth ring road around the city), some 2,190km long. Extension of Beijing’s subway and light rail networks to neighbouring cities is on the cards, too. In all, the project is expected to cost a nifty 42 trillion yuan (£3.9trn).

This isn’t the only major bit of urban integration underway in China. In 2011, the Daily Telegraph reported that China was planning to merge the nine major cities of the Pearl River Delta, next to Hong Kong, into a single metropolitan area. The “Turn The Pearl River Delta Into One” was expected to include 150 separate infrastructure projects to connect the cities’ transport, energy, water and telecommunications networks, at a cost of some 2 trillion yuan (£190 billion). The result would be a single metropolitan area containing 42 million people in an area twice the size of Wales.

The report was swiftly denied – but that hasn’t stopped the Shenzhen subway network from moving ahead with plans to extend to neighbouring cities such as Dongguan and Huizhou some 90 miles away. It can only be a matter of time before a city somewhere in China finally takes Tokyo’s crown.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.