Connecting up Britain’s cities will create new economic powerhouses and a very different urban living experience in the built and digital environment. Jon Herbert considers what might be involved.

Size is important for cities. It means that partners, spouses and people living together under the same roof can all expect to find suitable employment within reasonable commuting distances and increase their net household income. That in turn boosts economic activity.

Skills are brought together. Experience is easier to share. Centres of excellence work closely. Communication improves. Energy and waste systems operate more efficiently.

There will also be more potential and economies of scale for the digital future. We are only just beginning to explore and exploit new IT technologies that will affect the behaviour, and be affected by the behaviour, of city dwellers — perhaps to the detriment of privacy.

North–south divide

The proposed HS2 and now HS3 rail systems have a clear purpose once the great cities of the North decide whether they should club together as a rival to London’s surging economic power, or form pleasant, low-cost “suburbs” to the capital. This can be important when seen through the eyes of world-class inward investors who are already choosing to build major global hubs in the South East.

This point is not lost on the London-born Chancellor who said recently that it is time to part company with the cliché of his youth that “if it wasn’t happening in London, it wasn’t happening at all”.

Mr Osborne said it was true that London had become “a global capital, the home of international finance, attracting the young, the ambitious, the wealthy and the entrepreneurial from around the world in their tens of thousands”.

However, something equally remarkable has happened in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and other northern cities over the past 30 years: once hollowed-out city centres are thriving again.

All for one

The problem, he said, is that northern cities are “individually strong, but collectively not strong enough, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts”. This is allowing London to dominate more and more to the detriment of the national economy.

Size matters in a modern, knowledge-based economy city, he added, pointing out that the world’s top 600 cities are home to 20% of global population but create 60% of global GDP.

In response, he wants to spend £600 million on creating a Northern Hub and removing anomalies such as that it is quicker to travel between London and Paris than Liverpool and Hull, and the fact that it takes 1 hour and 20 minutes to move 38 miles between Manchester and Sheffield.

HS2 is part of the solution and will connect 8 of the UK’s 10 largest cities, including Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Phase 2 will include a £21 billion investment and at least 60,000 jobs.

HS3 Pennine

Plans for a HS3 line first mentioned in June, that would cut travel times between Manchester and Leeds from 48 to 26 minutes, have now moved a step closer with an interim report due in March 2015 that will look at options, costs and a delivery timetable.

One estimate is that a new trans-Pennine link could cost £7 billion and in some ways would be the northern equivalent of London’s £16 billion Crossrail line, which is due to start running in 2018. Rather than digging afresh under the Pennines, the new line is likely to consist of a series of upgrades and developments that would include electrification. Unlike the 225mph HS2, HS3 would run at 125mph.

Social cities

But fast rail and road links are not the only communication priorities for modern global cities. There is also a need for successful future cities to be smarter — a term that has different meanings for different urban centres. The UK wants to both build smarter cities and become a world-leader in smart city technology.

In 2013, the Government ran a smart city competition, which won Glasgow £24 million to make its mark on urban problems that include the strange phenomenon that average life-expectancy falls by 28 years over the national average within a seven-mile radius of the city centre.

Energy efficiency is another priority in areas of the city where large proportions of household income are spent on fuel. Public transport is poor in some areas.

In response, half the money has been invested in a new operational centre where events are monitored by the police, traffic authorities and emergency services. To reduce anti-social behaviour, an upgraded CCTV system with 400 high-resolution cameras has been installed; money has also gone into researching the potential of big data to predict and forestall crime.

There will also be intelligent, low-cost lighting linked to security cameras in troubled areas. Resources have also gone into modern data systems that allow residents to report potholes and uncollected waste bins.

Bristol city

In contrast, Bristol has adopted a different definition of smartness and is very open about its plans to spend its £3 million runner-up prize on investing in people and experiences.

Like other cities, part of its plan is to make a wealth of government data work for people through mobile apps and online services.

An early example is the Hills Are Evil app, which defines accessible travel routes around the city for wheelchair-users and others with mobility issues. This provides information on hills, rough surfaces and drop-kerb facilities.

In a potentially more controversial — if popular — move, the council is also making sensitive information on restaurant and café performance ratings available from its food premises inspections.

It also reports on its own renewable energy company and investments made with European Investment Bank Funding into wind turbines and retrofitting 28,000 social housing units with solar panels and smart energy metres. The city has won the prestigious European Green Capital title.

Virtual cities

Perhaps the most intrusive aspect of the digital city life will be experienced in simply walking round conurbations of the future and interacting with virtual technology. Facial recognition will be standard for both security and convenience. Smart shopping labels and contactless payment systems will become the norm.

Virtual stores and digital changing rooms will be an accepted part of life. There will be little privacy either. Highly personalised marketing and information messages will come at the cost of personal data gathered from a ubiquitous array of behavioural sensors embedded within the urban environment.

Not all data gathering will be beneficial, as Amsterdam found recently when an app was developed to pull together publicly available information of high-income, low-reported crime and broken streetlights. The Makkie Klauwe app means “easy pickings” in Amsterdam slang.

Devil diesel

In a more pressing move to improve the quality of urban environments now, the Government is coming under growing pressure to cut particulate pollution from diesel vehicles. This follows the latest ruling in a long-running battle over clean air.

The European Court of Justice has decided that judges must force ministers to clean up illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide in city atmospheres as soon as possible after a case brought in Luxembourg by ClientEarth, a non-profit group of activist environmental lawyers.

ClientEarth says the Government now has no choice but to restrict diesel emissions and ministers could be forced into a major retrofit of pollution controls on buses and lorries.

Diesel cars may also be banned from cities and new technology could be installed to ensure that diesel cars comply with manufacturers’ emission data.

The Government was meant to have cleaned up nitrogen dioxide pollution in cities by 2015 but wanted to push back the goal until 2030. A major problem for politicians is that after many years of trying to encourage drivers to buy diesel cars that produce lower CO2 emissions, they may soon be obliged to perform a U-turn.

First published by Croner-i on 19 January 2015



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