Manchester Metrolink: six lessons for other cities

Metrolink at work. Image: MrOswaldtwistle, taken from Flickr under creative commons.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, two suburban railway lines, to the north and south of Manchester, were joined via new tracks through the streets of the city centre, and converted for light rail operation. In 1992, for the first time in decades, trams returned to the streets of Britain.

The Metrolink network was extended in 1998; and in 2010; and again, in every year since. The latest line, to Manchester Airport, opened earlier this month. More are in the pipeline.

In other words, Manchester has managed to do something that no other British city has done since London built its tube. Some cities have opened individual light rail lines; other have rebranded railway lines as metros as a one-off event. But Manchester alone has succeeded in creating something that's a real network, with all the multi-coloured Beck-style maps that implies, and then continuing to build it year after year after year.

All of which raises a question: what did Manchester get right?

To prevent the place from getting too big-headed about the fact we're being so nice about it, we’ll be explaining this using quotes from the most famous people ever to come out of the city’s arch rival.

1) You say you got a real solution – we'd all love to see the plan

Let’s start with the history. Once upon a time, Manchester effectively had two railway networks. One covered the north of the city, and ran into Victoria station; the other, covering the south, ran into Piccadilly. As a result, passengers arrived outside the main business district and had to walk the last leg: not ideal, if you want to encourage people out of their cars.

The city explored a number of options for plugging this hole, most famously the Picc-Vic tunnel, a sort of Mancunian Crossrail. But by the early eighties, the city’s transport authorities had settled on light rail, of the sort that was becoming increasingly popular on the continent. In 1984, it published its plan for a 100km network, mixing existing railway lines with new, on-street sections, and running to a total of six destinations in the city’s suburbs.

Three decades later, four of those routes (Altrincham, Bury, East Didsbury and Oldham) are a reality. In other words, the city made a plan, and adapted it to circumstance. At no point did it throw it out and start all over again.

2) Now give me money

Getting any cash for public transport at the height of Thatcherism was always going to be a tough sell, of course: at the time, in fact, the government was seriously considering closing a number of railway lines in Manchester to save money. 

So, says Councillor Andrew Fender, who chairs Manchester’s transport committee and was involved in the scheme from the beginning, the city decided to focus its efforts on “the most economically viable” bit of its network. The commuter railway line to Bury, a suburban town eight miles north of the city centre, used a unique power system and distinctly rusty trains: it all needed to be replaced anyway.

Meanwhile, Market Street, in the city centre, was in the process of being pedestrianised: since the road was being torn up anyway, and since it provided a convenient link to the start of the Altrincham line in the south, it was possible to join the two lines together at a minimum of extra cost. A spur to Piccadilly was included, to link the network to the city's main station.

The future of Metrolink, as envisioned when the first lined opened in 1992. Click for a larger version. Image used courtesy of Transport for Greater Manchester.

From the very start, then, the authorities weren't simply presenting a wish list, or a vision of the city they wished to be: they focused on making the best economic case they could. And so, says Fender, "We were able to persuade the government that this was something they could invest public money in.”

3)  And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

This focus on winning the economic argument has continued. Some of the lines on the network today weren't in that original 1984 plan: most obviously, at that time, Salford Quays was a post-industrial wasteland. Within a year or two, though, it was slated to be one of the country's biggest regeneration schemes.

So, says Fender, the other lines in the first draft of the plan were held back, and for Phase Two the city instead prioritised a line through the Quays, and on towards Eccles. Frequent trams to the city centre would spur the area's regeneration; and the consequent economic benefits would justify the cost of the new line.

In other words, it's not enough to have a plan: you need to be flexible enough to adjust it to changing circumstances.

4) Think for yourself

By the late nineties, Metrolink was a success story, Britain had a new government which was rather more enthusiastic about big public transport schemes, and deputy prime minister John Prescott, the man responsible for transport, was encouraging Manchester to think big. Phase 3 was meant to include four different lines, more than doubling the size of the network in one fell swoop. It would cost £489m, yes: but, so the thinking went, the "Big Bang" expansion would bring economies of scale.

It didn't quite work out like that. Construction inflation, increased land prices, and all sorts of other factors meant that costs began to rise. The programme was cancelled; then it was uncancelled, but the government's contribution was capped at a maximum of £520m. In the end, the Big Bang became two, slightly smaller bangs. The government would fund the next two-and-a-bit lines ("Phase 3a"). But to go beyond that, Manchester would need to find its own source of cash. 

The city’s first bright idea was the Greater Manchester Transport Innovation Fund: a £3bn plan that matched central government funding with private borrowing, which would be paid off largely through new congestion charge. This, though, was quite a big deal, so at the end of 2008 the city was required hold a referendum on the vexed question of whether Mancunians fancied getting their wallets out every time they wanted to drive into the city.

This went about as well as you would expect.

But, says Fender, "we'd spent government money developing the economic appraisals for each Metrolink extension, each major bus or rail innovation. We weren't just going to stick all that work in a drawer to gather dust". 

So the 10 borough councils and the city’s transport authorities teamed up to put together a new scheme. The Greater Manchester Transport Fund pools cash from existing transport budgets, council funds, and, well, basically anywhere else it can get it. But those sources of money include fares: so the better the city’s transport network gets, the more money there is going back into the pot. Manchester is increasingly able to act without handouts from central government.

5) Come together

Metrolink is pretty big these days. But it doesn't even touch two of Greater Manchester's 10 boroughs, and it barely touches the borders of a third.

Nonetheless, all 10 supported the new financing mechanism that has paid for the scheme's expansion. It’s an example of that rarest of things, a virtuous circle: so successful were the trams in helping to regenerate the city centre, that even boroughs untouched by them could see it was worth their while to expand the system.

Greater Manchester has come together in other ways, too. In other cities, a change in which party holds the town hall has seen years of work thrown out. But, says Fender, "Since the late 1990s, we've had support from councils in different parts of the city region, right across the political spectrum. Getting phase one built was absolutely crucial to demonstrate that it would work.”

The single transport fund created in 2009 has had a fairly major side effect: it helped convinced Whitehall that Greater Manchester was capable of a measure of self-rule. If working together made it possible to expand Metrolink, then expanding Metrolink has made it easier for the boroughs to work together, too.

Metrolink today. Click for a larger version.

6) The long and winding road

Peter Cushing, who since early 2013 has been the director in charge of Metrolink, has all sorts of exciting plans for the future. New signalling, to improve reliability; a new western line to Trafford Park, and onto Port Salford, which is currently out to consultation; using “tram trains”, to add lines shared with heavy rail services to the network.

The most immediate priority, though, is finishing the second city crossing, which will enable more trams to run through the city centre, and so allow more frequent services on the network’s outer branches. "We're not in a situation where we stand still," Cushing adds. "We're always looking for opportunities that are affordable, fundable and make good economic sense."

None of the lessons of Metrorail are complicated or surprising: work together; make a plan; stick to it where possible, and adapt it where not; prioritise the bits that’ll do most for the local economy; and never, ever give up. In many ways, the surprise isn’t that it’s worked, but that so few cities have managed to do it.

Fender, who's been there since the beginning, is clearly massively proud of the network he's helped to create. "I would consider Manchester to be the UK's first provincial city," he says. "It has an international reputation now, and a very significant part of what we've achieved has been the light railway." Manchester didn’t just create its trams: those trams have helped create modern Manchester.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.