Middlesbrough is determined to demolish its bus station. It should replace it with a new transport hub

A bus passes the Middlehaven redevelopment site. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of last year, Middlesbrough Council put in a bid for a “media and innovation village” on the west side of town. The catch? The development would be built on what is currently the bus station.

The mayor of Middlesbrough, Dave Budd, has promised that the work will only go ahead if another central site can be found for the bus station. Meanwhile on the northern edge of the centre, work has begun to redevelop Middlesbrough railway station in preparation for the return of direct trains to London in 2020.

And, just past the railway, huge tracts of former docklands sit overgrown and unused. This site, in the shadow of Middlesbrough’s famous transporter bridge, is earmarked for the Middlehaven development project. But despite ambitious plans, much of the land remains unused and in public ownership, and according to the council website no-one seems to have applied for planning permission on any of the sites near the station.

These are three disparate regeneration projects – but together they mean there’s a need for a new bus station, the political drive to create a transport hub, and land going spare in a convenient central location. The solution seems obvious – to put the new bus station next to the existing railway one. So why hasn’t the council been able to agree a new site yet?


One factor is that, as long as the Middlehaven project is ongoing, to scale it back would look like defeat, even if the project is behind schedule and appears to have stalled. Building the bus station here would require redrawing the plans – although it may also come with the advantage of making the rest of Middlehaven more attractive to developers.

Another is that the current bus station location is already a good one. It sits right in the heart of the shopping district and just a few minutes’ walk from Teesside University, on a major road with easy access to the wider UK network for long-distance coaches. Although it shows its age, its circulatory design seems to work well – plus, how many other bus stations have an on-site butchers? The one disadvantage is its distance from the railway station – no fun when you’re lugging your suitcase through the rain, rushing for your train. Still, there is probably nowhere in the town as ideally placed for a bus station.

I’m not sure it makes sense to demolish the bus station. But since the council is set on doing so anyway, they should seize the opportunity to make Middlesbrough into a proper gateway to the Tees Valley region.

Central Middlesbrough. The patch of empty land highlighted would seem to be the best site for a new bus station. Image: OpenStreetMap.

A bus station on the empty land immediately past the railway station would only be slightly further from the central shopping district than the old bus station, and it would be on the main roads through Middlesbrough and out to the surrounding towns of Teesside and beyond. The rest of Teesside, much of which currently only has hourly trains, would be better connected to the national rail network, while visitors from outside the North East would be greeted a by modern, convenient transport interchange, rather than having to follow a warren of underpasses and backstreets to their connection.

Some bus routes would have to be redirected – but if the streets of Middlehaven were wide enough for the industrial lorries of a thriving port, they should be wide enough for buses. Increased capacity for cross-town buses might ease the blow to the university from moving the bus station further away. Plus, as an added benefit, it would improve transport links to Middlesbrough College and Middlesbrough FC’s home ground, Riverside Stadium – which currently has no public transport at all.

Next Wednesday, the council will meet to discuss the demolition and rebuilding of the current bus station. They have the chance to make Middlesbrough into a transport hub for the Tees Valley region. It will be interesting to see what they do with the opportunity.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray has strong feelings about bus stations, and tweets @stejormur.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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