A monorail won’t fix the East Midlands. So what could?

What’s it called...? Image: Fox.

Andrew Bridgen MP, the Tweedledum to Mark Francois’s Tweedledee, has made a limited name for himself as a standard-issue Conservative reactionary with boilerplate right-wing views on everything from the European Union to HS2.

As such it was quite surprising to see him endorsing a monorail or light rail link between East Midlands Parkway station and East Midlands Airport, as an attempt to reduce congestion on local roads.

While I’m always supportive of more investment in public transport, it would be a vast undertaking to cover a three mile gap – which inconveniently happens to contain an A road, the M1 motorway, a major flight path and the village of Kegworth. So it’s worth thinking about what measures really could be taken to help Britain’s least-remembered region succeed.

Fix Britain’s Buses

Lacking a single unified metropolitan area the East Midlands is more vulnerable than most regions to a lack of a single transport authority. With its population outside Nottingham, Derby and Leicester mostly residing in small towns and villages, it is bus services that provide what most people think of as public transport.

The situation is not good, as Bridgen’s own constituency illustrates. Getting to Leicester from Coalville, a distance of about 12 miles, takes over an hour, and from Kegworth to Loughborough (five miles) costs £3. This situation is replicated across the region’s smaller towns, where rail services are often slim to non-existent.

It’s true that getting between East Midlands Parkway and the airport is a transport challenge – the station sees just four scheduled buses a day. But building a properly regulated bus network that can serve smaller towns would relieve road traffic and save drivers money, while also costing significantly less than a pointless monorail.

Restore council budgets

A July report by the House of Commons Transport Committee (beautifully entitled “filling the gap”) reported that local authority spending on maintenance of B, C and U roads fell from just over £2.5bn in 2009 to under £2bon in 2017-18. Losing 20 per cent of funding will naturally have knock on effects on the quality of roads, and the efficiency of road works that are undertaken.

In addition to the direct effects on the roads, rural areas with a lot of poverty are inevitably hard hit by cuts because their location makes access to remaining services more difficult. They also have more older people requiring social care, which as a statutory service requires that other services receive proportionally bigger cuts.

While Bridgen’s North West Leicestershire scores relatively low for deprivation according to the 2019 Indices of Multiple Deprivation data, the East Midlands as a whole has significant areas of rural poverty, especially in Lincolnshire and in some parts of North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Given the above mentioned prevalence of small towns and villages in the East Midlands, reflating council budgets to the point where they can properly maintain infrastructure would relieve traffic, as Bridgen apparently wants, and have all sorts of pleasant side effects like properly funded social care and bin collections. But why have that, when you could have a pointless monorail?

Sort out Brexit

For all the vox pops of post-industrial towns in the North so beloved of TV news, the East Midlands was the region of the UK which voted most heavily to leave the EU. Only two local authorities – the large, ethnically diverse city of Leicester and Ken Clarke’s home turf of Rushcliffe – supported Remain, with even Nottingham very narrowly voting Leave.

This isn’t due to some innate property of Midlanders but mostly because the region is less urban than most others, with few direct links to either the European continent or to liberal cultural values.

But one place that might be hit by border trouble in the wake of No Deal would be East Midlands Airport. As well as being the nation’s 13th busiest passenger airport – carrying more people than London City or Leeds-Bradford, primarily to destinations in Europe – it’s also the UK’s second-busiest cargo carrier after Heathrow, and an employer of several thousand people directly or indirectly.

With the local MP a staunch Brexiteer, he might want to think through the implications of overwhelming a piece of vital transport infrastructure in his own backyard. But if we are going to face huge airport queues and backed up lorries, at least news crews might be able to arrive on the scene via his pointless monorail.

Support HS2

Bridgen’s concern for the economic wellbeing of the area around the new East Midlands Gateway industrial estate is laudable, but it jars with his long-standing opposition to HS2, which has caused him such misery he sold his house under HS2’s exceptional hardship scheme.

One of his objections is to HS2’s use of hub stations and spurs, such as the planned Toton Hub near his constituency, which will connect to Derby, Nottingham and Leicester via rail spurs and Nottingham’s NET tram system. This would allow greater connectivity between the three major cities of the East Midlands, as well as providing jobs and high speed transport to other areas of the country for local people. But, as Bridgen told the Leicester Mercury:

"Who wants to go to nearly somewhere? It’ll cost billions to connect these hubs to city centres.”

Maybe it would be cheaper and less environmentally destructive if they built a pointless monorail.

Make progress on East Midlands Devolution

The East Midlands and the South East are the only English regions without any devolution deals in place. Some parts of North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were due to be included in the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, but withdrew amid wrangling between councils before the election of the region’s first metro mayor in 2018.

Nottingham and Derby have been slated for a deal for some time, but this seems to be slow going, with the current proposal, the Metro Strategy, proposing some degree of partnership only by the end of the next decade.

Part of the problem is that the three major cities all have sufficiently different local characters and economies to be uncomfortable with sharing power, while the political polarisation between the cities, counties and local lower-tier councils is quite stark. Nottingham and Leicester are Labour strongholds, all three county councils are Conservative-held, and Derby is run by an unholy coalition of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party. That’s before we even think about trying to incorporate Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire.

While a unified city-state (presumably headquartered in Loughborough) might therefore be some way off, it shouldn’t be beyond the mutual self-interest of some of these authorities and central government to establish a regional transport authority to help sort out the bus routes and access to the airport, among other issues. This would help – not least because East Midlands Parkway and East Midlands Airport lie across county lines, so you’d need them to regulate the pointless monorail.


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.