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.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.