Westminster’s failure to build public transport in Leeds will be a disaster for Londoners

Briggate, Leeds, 2010. Note the lack of tram. Image: MTaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

The Leeds Supertram bill was first discussed in the House of Commons in 1991. I was six years old. The UK economy was three times the size of China’s. The first new buildings at Canary Wharf had not yet been completed, and debates to extend the Jubilee line there were just beginning.

Today China’s economy is well over three times the size of the UK’s. Canary Wharf has new tube stations and light rail stations. Its new Crossrail station will open in 2018.

There is still no tram in Leeds. It is the largest city in the EU with no mass transport system. Its twin city of Lille, very similar in many ways, has two metro lines, two tram lines, and international high-speed rail connections. Leeds has nothing.

Click to expand.

How did we get here?

In the 1990s, the Conservative government told Leeds to get started with supertram and promised money. The money never came.

When Labour came to power the governmet put a freeze on new infrastructure projects, and forced Leeds to re-work and reduce its proposal and re-apply.

The proposed map of the network. 

In 2005 the government cancelled the scheme completely and told Leeds that it could not proceed with any tram or light-rail project. Leeds was told to rework the tram system as a trolleybus.

Work continued through a coalition government until May 2016, when a public inquiry reported and the Department for Transport blocked Leeds from proceeding with the scheme. There are some good reasons and many bad reasons why Leeds must now start again with its ambitions to build a public transport scheme. I won’t discuss them here. Instead I’ll discuss the people who will suffer most from this failure.

Londoners will suffer

Leeds is projected to be Britain’s fastest growing city in the coming decades. It is one of the UK’s only cities that is planning not just to meet but to exceed its housing requirements. It is hungry and ready to retain the talent and generate the growth that currently leaves the North of England and fills up London.


For decades Leeds’ ambitions have been held back by congestion. I have lived and worked in London, Paris, Hanoi, Birmingham, and Leeds. Commuting in Leeds is the worst of all five. Congestion restricts and separates economic activity into small pockets of the city more than anywhere else I know.

Now, without the prospect of a public transport system any time soon, Leeds’ ambitions will be curtailed for further decades. Planning applications in outer Leeds will be refused because of congestion. Brownfield redevelopments in central Leeds will have to be built at a lower density for the same reason. More of the Northern, European, and global talent that calls Leeds home and that doesn’t want to live in London will reluctantly move south. People who do want to live in London will have to pay even more rent to compete with them for limited space. The UK’s economy will suffer. Our housing crisis will deepen.

Leeds and its neighbours were the original modern cities. We are desperate to continue our rebirth as modern European cities. We have worked with the UK government for 25 years to build a public transport system. Our resoundingly re-elected local government has planned a system and is now willing to pay for it itself. We are blocked from doing so.

Leeds will be fine. We will remain the UK’s best city for open data. We will still grow, just more slowly. But the growth and the ambition that we cannot now accommodate will spill over to London, a city that does not want to grow. House prices will rise, living standards will fall, and more money will need to be sent north to support an NHS and education system that our stunted economy cannot pay for itself.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.