Archive for the 'Social Geography and Urban Studies' Category

Leadership lessons from the Baltimore riots?

In today’s guest post Robin Hambleton, author of Leading the inclusive city,  suggests that government policies rather than racial prejudice by individuals are to blame for urban disturbances, such as those in Ferguson and Baltimore in the USA and in Bristol and other cities in the UK.


Robin Hambleton

Having visited several American cities in recent weeks, and talked to public servants, business leaders, community activists and academics about current urban stresses and strains, it is difficult not to conclude that US cities face deeply troubling challenges. Continue reading ‘Leadership lessons from the Baltimore riots?’

Policy Press April ‘editorial picks’: Politics

Continuing our new series of monthly ‘editor picks’, and with our focus very much on the election it makes sense for our Politics Senior Commissioning Editor Emily Watt to tell us a little bit about her background, what she’s most excited by in upcoming Politics titles and why she feels certain New Zealand will win the Rugby World Cup this year…

Policy Press - 013Name: Emily Watt

Title: Senior Commissioning Editor

What’s your background story?
I have been at Policy Press for just over 10 years, which is still hard to believe, working my way up from Editorial Assistant in January 2005 to my current role as Senior Commissioning Editor.

About 4 years before this and about a year after graduating from Lancaster University with a BA Hons in American Studies, I went travelling with my best friend for 15 months to the US, Australia and South East Asia. I didn’t really know at this point what I wanted to do, so I was hoping this trip would enable me, in true clichéd style, ‘to find myself’. It was an amazing experience, but it didn’t get me much closer to a career decision.

When I returned I found out that one of the friends had just completed an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes and then the penny dropped, I suddenly knew this is what I wanted to do! My Mum had also done copy-editing and proofreading and worked in magazine publishing, so publishing had always been there in the background.

One year of study later, during which I worked part-time at Berg, I finally got my qualification and, just as importantly, was put in touch with Alison Shaw, the Director at Policy Press. While back in Bristol, I wrote a letter to Alison to ask if she had any work for me. The rest, as they say, is history and I haven’t looked back since.

What does your role entail and what do you enjoy most about it?
As a Senior Commissioning Editor and manager of the Commissioning Team, my role can be really varied. For example, one morning I can be reading and feeding back on new book proposals, planning for the next conference or campus visit, preparing paperwork for our next Acquisitions Meetings or sending out referee comments or contract offers. By the afternoon, I could be reviewing the Team’s budget, analysing the commissioning targets to feed into plans for the following year, or attending a cross-team meeting.

I really relish balancing such a variety of tasks in any one day and being able to challenge myself to think through problems and make swift decisions. I enjoy managing the team, but my real passion is commissioning and being able to see an early idea start from a conversation I had at a conference to becoming a finished product. This gives me great satisfaction.

What most excites you about your subjects?
I look after a good range of subjects including Politics, such as Public Policy, Social Policy and Welfare, Social Geography and Urban Studies and Housing and Planning and although they interlink, I like that the books I work on can be so different in scope.

I am particularly engaged in areas of my list that have a social justice or equality angle, that challenge current thinking and push the debate forward and which truly bridge the gap between theory and practice. Great recent examples of this are ‘Making policy move’ by John Clarke, Dave Bainton, Noémi Lendvai and Paul Stubbs, which is out this month, ‘New philanthropy and social justice’ (part of our Contemporary issues in social policy series) by Behrooz Morvaridi and Julian Dobson’s campaigning book ‘How to save our town centres’.

What key things are happening in Politics at Policy Press this year?
You could argue that everything we publish has a relevance to politics and policy, but in Politics we started the year off well with the release of a new trade book by Peter Hain MP entitled ‘Back to the future of Socialism’, which is a real boost to our Politics list. Written by a former Labour MP, who was in the Blair and Brown Cabinets, Peter’s book revisits the classic 1956 work by Anthony Crosland and uses it as a springboard for putting forward his political prospectus for today. The book, pitched at a wide readership, is a real boost for our Politics list and makes for an academically engaging and personal read, one that I think is very important given the public’s growing disengagement and disaffection with mainstream political parties.

Another important book that has just been released as a paperback is ‘Women of Power’ by Torild Skard which charts an impressive 73 female presidents and prime ministers worldwide over the last 50 years. Based on an astounding amount of research by the author, the book looks at these women’s motives, achievements and life stories in politics and it is a must read for anyone interested in gender, politics and leadership.

There has also been some excellent content on key political issues published in the latest issue of our Policy & Politics journal. I was particularly drawn to ‘the politics of quangocide’ from Katharine Dommett and Matt Flinders and ‘Governing at arm’s length’ by Catherine Durose, Jonathan Justice and Chris Skelcher. The journal co-edited by Sarah Ayres (Bristol) and Matt Flinders (Sheffield) is a leading international journal in the field of public policy that importantly prizes itself (as Policy Press does too) on bridging the gap between theory and practice and linking macro-scale political economy debates with micro-scale policy studies.

Our new Policy Press Shorts are an ideal format for Politics given that the subject is so fast-moving and topical. Being able to offer flexible publishing options has opened up new opportunities in all our subjects and the Policy Press Shorts have a 12 week turnaround from delivery to publication. They are an excellent outlet for publishing original ideas quickly and making a difference in a concise and accessible way, ideal for politics.

One great example is a Policy and practice Short entitled ‘Battle of the Bedroom tax’ by Dave Cowan and Alex Marsh which publishes just after the election. The bedroom tax was a key and highly contentious policy and one which could slip down the political agenda depending on who gets in power in May, so having the Short out quickly so that it hits the right political moment is key.

What interests you particularly about Politics?
The key issues that interest me in Politics at the moment are political disengagement, devolution and a shift in power from a Westminster-centric view and the ongoing debates related to independence and the decline of mainstream political parties in favour of more extreme parties, such as UKiP (there is much more to be said here!).

I am also keen to commission more politics books in areas we are known for and which are continually on the political agenda. This includes political issues for disadvantaged groups, such as those in poverty, older people, disability and gender and books that push the boundaries and put forward radical and fresh perspectives.

What reading book is currently on your bedside table?

I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt that was chosen by our very own Victoria Pittman for book group. I really like what I’ve read so far, but I have a feeling the book will be by my bed (or on the bus with me) for a while!

Laura Vickers led the editorial picks in March – what would you say is her secret superpower/thing she is most awesome at doing?
Her sheer determination. When she puts her mind to something she doesn’t give up and makes sure it gets done even though it might be really challenging along the way or take a long time.

Laura’s question for you is: Who will win the Rugby World Cup?
This question from Laura is a not a surprise as she is a massive fan of rugby and most sports. I have absolutely no idea how to pick a team to win the World Cup, but I will base it on a place where I have always wanted to visit – New Zealand.

What question would you want us to ask our next editorial interviewee?
Who would be the 4 best/most influential people you would have dinner with and why? They don’t all have to be alive!

If you enjoyed this blog you might also enjoy….

Policy Press March ‘editorial picks’: Environment and Sustainability

Policy Press February ‘editorial picks’: Criminology and Criminal Justice

Related reading

Policy Press CoverMoney and electoral politics by Johnston and Pattie

An urban geographer’s journey through the changing landscape of gentrification

Writer, urban geographer and guest blogger Loretta Lees has been researching gentrification on and off now for 27 years. Her interest was triggered as an undergraduate student by a tour of the gentrifying Lower East Side in New York City. In her post Loretta guides us through the journey that has led her to research and publish numerous books and papers on the subject…

Loretta picturesAs an undergraduate student in the summer of 1988 I took a tour of the gentrifying Lower East Side in New York City given by the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith. There was community division about the recently introduced 1am curfew on the previously 24 hour access to Tompkins Square Park and the tension was palpable. A couple of days later the Tompkins Square Park anti-gentrification riots exploded, largely attributed to the heavy-handed actions of the NYPD.


The Lower East Side about to gentrify (photo: Loretta Lees, 1988)

Since then the gentrification process has mutated almost beyond recognition. Much of the gentrification we see these days is not the classic type where old houses are refurbished but rather new-build gentrification on brownfield or cleared sites. Gentrification is rarely small-scale and individually-led now, it is large scale and state-led. The social cleansing of Tompkins Square Park, that led to the riots, already demonstrated to me back then the increasing support the state was giving to gentrification.

Comparative urbanism

My expertise is in British and North American cities but I have shifted over the past 5 years to look in more depth at other European cities and processes of urbanization in the Global South and East. A longstanding interest in comparative urbanism and a desire to learn more about gentrification outside the Global North informed my collaboration with Hyun Shin, Ernesto Lopez and the late sociologist Hilda Herzer (University of Buenos Aires).

Huan Bang Shin, LSE

Huan Bang Shin, LSE

Working together we ran two linked seminars, one in London and one in Santiago in Chile. We asked questions like: Has gentrification really gone global? Is gentrification in the global south and east a new phenomenon or can it be regarded as part of a historical continuity of urban segregation and class-led urban reconfiguration? Should we call it gentrification at all? How does a gentrification blueprint anticipate the geographical and historical specificity of places? How do gentrification policies emerge in different countries? How does gentrification play out differently in the predominantly non-white cities of the Global South and East?

Ernesto Lopez, University of Chile

Ernesto Lopez, University of Chile

Drawing on conversations with folk writing about gentrification in the Global South and East, and from international reviews of pre-existing and emerging gentrification literatures we set out to answer such questions by giving voice to academics not usually consulted. What was required of us was no mean feat: a comparative imagination that could respond to the post-colonial challenge of unpicking the ‘Northern theoretical’ reference points on gentrification. And this will have implications for how gentrification is conceived and how research is conducted. It means paying attention to issues of developmentalism, universalism and categorisation. The way we did this was to use a relational comparative approach that, as Ananya Roy suggests, uses one site to pose questions of another.

Going Glocal

But, even though my interests went global, my concerns about gentrification also remained local. For a while I went Glocal! As someone who had lived in council properties at various stages of her life across the UK, and whose father was an architect who designed council houses, I became concerned about the gentrification of council estates. Although there are cases elsewhere in the UK, the gentrification of council estates has been especially prolific in London, where I live.


The Heygate Estate, London, socially cleansed (Photo: Loretta Lees, 2013)

Wanting to do something about this I teamed up with JustSpace, the London Tenants Federation and Southwark Notes Archive Group and together we worked on a project titled ‘Challenging ”the New Urban Renewal”: gathering the tools necessary to halt the social cleansing of council estates and developing community-led alternatives for sustaining existing communities’. After research into displacement on five council estates in inner London and workshops with tenants and others to identify alternatives to this ‘regeneration’ we successfully launched our handbook Staying Put. The handbook explains how the ‘regeneration’ of council estates is often  ‘gentrification’ and seeks to help tenants not just to recognise this but to fight it too. I’m really proud of the fact that the handbook has been adopted in a number of Swedish cities confronting the same issues.

I am currently extending this work in a new project titled ‘AGAPE: Exploring anti-gentrification practices and policies in Southern European Cities’. I am working with an Italian urban scholar, Sandra Annunziata, on the ways in which anti-gentrification practices have fed through to anti-gentrification policies in Rome, Madrid and Athens. The interface between gentrification studies and socially-just urban policy remains a tough nut to crack, but we must continue to try.

You may like to follow Loretta on twitter @LorettaCLees or get in touch with her via email.

Global gentrifications [FC]Global Gentrifications: Uneven development and displacement which details the results of the research conducted by Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website – here

See other Policy Press books by Loretta Lees

Sustainable London?: the future of a global city, Policy Press, edited by Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees, 2014.

Mixed Communities: gentrification by stealth?, Policy Press, edited by Gary Bridge, Tim Butler and Loretta Lees, 2011.

You may also be interested in other titles on gentrification by Loretta Lees

Planetary Gentrification, by Loretta Lees, Hyun Shin and Ernesto Lopez-Morales, forthcoming Polity Press, Cambridge.

The London Tenants Federation, Lees,L, Just Space and Southwark Notes Archive Group (2014) Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London 

Loretta co-organises: The Urban Salon: A London forum for architecture, cities and international urbanism

Listen to Loretta’s TEDxBrixton talk on Gentrification and a podcast of her talk on Ruth Glass at the 50th Anniversary of the coining of the term ‘gentrification’.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Can we save our town centres?

The state of Britain’s town centres is back on the political agenda, as many of our towns and cities continue in their struggle to survive, regenerate and prosper as social centres. In his guest post author and researcher Julian Dobson, whose book Save our town centres publishes today, shows the failure of depending on market forces to ‘solve’ the town centre problem.

Julian Dobson 2Last month local leaders across the UK who had pinned their hopes on plans to regenerate landmark sites in partnership with Tesco had to bin years of planning and negotiations: the giant retailer pulled out of schemes to develop 49 sites, dumping promises to create at least 8,000 jobs, more than 1,100 new homes and nearly 2.5m square feet of retail space.

Wolverhampton’s Royal Hospital, derelict for 14 years, was just one of the victims. Less than a year ago the local council leader, Roger Lawrence, was hailing a £65m scheme to bring the site back to life, create hundreds of jobs and revitalise the city centre.

Yet last month, local MP, Pat McFadden called Tesco’s decision to walk away from the redevelopment: “a betrayal of the people of Wolverhampton and a clear breach of the promise made to the people of the city.”


Frustration continues to typify the debate on the future of town centres. Local and national leaders place their faith in private developers and big retailers to rescue towns from decline, only to have those hopes dashed time and again.

Speaking in Parliament on 10 February Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, declared that town centres were: “threatened by all sorts of forces: not exactly evil forces, but forces of change.” His roll of shame included supermarkets, betting shops and takeaway food stores.

Two days later Northern Ireland’s minister for social development, Mervyn Storey, took up a similar theme at the Northern Ireland Town Centre Futures conference. He argued: “[there is an] urgent need to radically rethink how we regenerate and revitalise our town centres as multifunctional social centres.”

“The decline of our town and city centres has taken decades, exacerbated by…a naive faith that ‘the market’ will solve the problem it has created”

There are signs that this is starting to happen. In Bangor, Northern Ireland, artists have worked with the local council to bring a run-down parade of shops back to life. In Falkirk a series of festivals have created a buzz and sense of local pride.

But the real changes we need go much deeper than that. They involve rethinking how space is used, who has access to it and owns it, and where the economic, social and environmental benefits flow.

Naive faith

The decline of our town and city centres has taken decades, exacerbated by social and technological changes, unintelligent planning decisions, and a naive faith that ‘the market’ will solve the problems it has created. It may take as long to reconfigure town centres in ways that generate lasting local benefits.

Artist mural Stokes Croft, Bristol

Artist mural Stokes Croft, Bristol

But in the meantime there are powerful symbolic actions that can demonstrate the direction of travel that’s required. In Todmorden, West Yorkshire, local people are rethinking public space and creating a new narrative for their town by growing and sharing food. In Bristol, street artists have pioneered alternative futures for Stokes Croft, an area neglected for years by the city council and private landowners.

On London’s South Bank, Coin Street Community Builders has shown how creating affordable homes for local people rather than yet another bleak office city can bring lasting benefits for everyone, opening up the riverside as a public space and preserving a diverse community in a city that is increasingly the preserve of the affluent.

Such symbolic actions can signpost new ways of thinking of urban space as part of the ‘commons’, the shared resources from which we all benefit and for which we all share a responsibility.

The challenge of town centres is a microcosm of the challenges of 21st century society: how to create an economy that works for all, how to create good places to live in, how we construct our identity in a world in which life is increasingly commoditised. There aren’t any quick and easy solutions, but despite the continued angst over the future of our towns and cities I believe there are many reasons to be hopeful. That hope is found in the places where people have been ready to challenge the assumption that wealth will trickle down to localities from corporate activity, and where they have begun to define the value of places and spaces on their own terms and in response to local needs.

How to save our town centres [FC]How to Save Our Town Centres publishes today and is available from Policy Press. It can be purchase from the website with a 20% discount by clicking here.

You can also follow Julian on twitter @urbanpollinator

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The devolution deception

This article was first published by The Planner, the magazine of the RTPI.

England’s core cities welcome the opportunity to take charge of their own affairs. But the government’s proposals for devolution may not be all that they seem, argues Policy Press author Robin Hambleton 

HambletonThe government has attempted to portray the devolution proposals for governance change in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield as a bold step towards the decentralisation of power in England. But are these so-called ‘devo deals’ all that they seem?

Until November 2014, prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood tall as the unrivalled centraliser of power in British politics. Her Rates Act of 1984 enabled the central state to decide, over the heads of local voters, how much councils would be allowed to tax individuals and businesses. In countries that value the importance of local democracy in society, such a centralising step is regarded as incomprehensible.

However, with a speech on 3 November 2014, Manchester to get directly elected Mayor, chancellor George Osborne set out an ambition to introduce into England an era of centralisation on steroids, one that goes well beyond the Thatcherite command-and-control state of the 1980s.

“So startling is the nature of current central government policy towards local government that I suggest we need a new word to encapsulate it”

Osborne’s Autumn Statement, presented to Parliament on 3 December 2014, confirmed his bid to finish off the idea that locally elected democratic institutions should be accountable to the people who elected them. Rather these elected local authorities are to be told by the central state to decimate local public services in the name of austerity.

So startling is the nature of current central government policy towards local government that I suggest we need a new word to encapsulate it.

To ‘Osbornify’ public policy involves introducing extreme measures to boost the power of the central state while all the time pretending that power is being decentralised. It takes political spin to a new level of deception.

Osborne said, in his November announcement, that his proposals to create a directly elected mayor for the Manchester conurbation, with powers over transport, housing, planning and policing, would “give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people”. Not all bad, you might say.

But he went on to state: “I want to talk to other cities who are keen to follow Manchester’s lead – every city is different and no model of local power will be the same’.

Think about it. The Osborne proposals involve Whitehall taking three massive steps to centralise power.

First, who is going to decide which areas of the country are to have these new governance arrangements? Ministers. Second, who will decide the criteria for devolving power to these lucky localities? Ministers. Third, who will be crawling over the detailed proposals individual cities have for urban development and socio-economic innovation? Yep, ministers.

This is classic divide and rule tactics. Cities around England understand this well enough. However, at this point in time, they have few options. The solidarity of local government is a casualty as localities vie for the bespoke attention of central government.

In preparing a new book, Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, I have been fortunate to work with a number of innovative cities in other parts of the world. I present 17 stories of bold civic leadership, drawn from 14 countries, to show how powerful elected local authorities are advancing social justice, promoting care for the environment, boosting local economies and strengthening community empowerment.

In many of these places, civic leaders are creating more inclusive cities by promoting civic pride, social innovation and place-based creativity. English local authorities can do the same, but not if Osborne is allowed to suffocate local democracy.

Robin Hambleton is professor of city leadership, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments at the University of the West of England, Bristol. We are grateful to The Planner, the magazine of the RTPI, for allowing us to re-produce this article. An abridged version will appear in the February edition of the magazine.

Robin Hambleton’s book, Leading the inclusive city: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet is available to buy at 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

The political economy of ‘a country called Europe’

SPERI_logo_300Policy Press author Dimitris Ballas recently published a blog on the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute blog, speri.comment, about ‘The political economy of ‘a country called Europe’ in which he suggests that new mapping techniques open up the possibility of  more informed policy-making and a greater sense of solidarity across Europe . We enjoyed it so much we thought you might like to read it too…

dimitris_ballasCan Europe be seen as one country? Or at least as an emerging ‘entity of identity’ made up of a growing number of smaller countries and regions? To what extent, in other words, can we start talking about the political economy of ‘a country called Europe’?

After several years of severe economic crisis and austerity measures that have disproportionately and brutally hit the most disadvantaged citizens across the continent, accompanied by a rise of extremist far right and populist parties, it may seem that a positive answer to these questions might be very unlikely.

Yet, despite the negative climate and the political scapegoating of the European Union in some of the countries most hit by the crisis and austerity measures, the fact is that, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, ‘most people are optimistic about the future of the EU in nearly all member states’ and, remarkably, ‘close to two-thirds of Europeans feel that they are citizens of the EU’. This seems to be particularly the case amongst the rapidly increasing numbers of Europeans who live, study and work in a member-state other than their country of birth.

There is undoubtedly a need for reform of the European Union and there are currently very important debates taking place regarding governance, democratic accountability and social cohesion, building on the remarkable achievements of the past seven decades. A notable example is a recently proposed manifesto for a euro political union, calling for ‘less Europe on issues on which member countries do very well on their own, and more Europe when union is essential’.

One novel way of contributing to these debates and of highlighting the benefits of policy-making at the European level is to consider European economy, culture, history and its human and physical geography as a single, large, land and population mass. This is the approach taken by myself and my fellow European geographers Danny Dorling and Benjamin Hennig in our recently published Social Atlas of Europe.

Our project highlights the notion of Europe as a single entity by looking at its physical and population geography simultaneously, using state-of-the-art Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and new human cartography techniques that build on recent award-winning research and innovative Worldmapping applications. The material and maps presented in our new atlas can then be used to inform evidence-based debates about policy-making at the European level.

I illustrate this here with a simple example taken from the Health chapter of the book, showing the relevance of our mapping to current debates about the political economy of Europe.

This is a map known as a Hennig Projection Gridded Cartogram, with the area drawn scaled proportionally to population but shaded by the total numbers of practising physicians per 100,000 population in each region (more information on the types of maps and the data and methods can be found in the introductory chapter and amongst other material available via the book’s accompanying web-site). It is worth noting that amongst the regions with the higher numbers we see countries heavily affected by recession and austerity, including Greece (which also the highest number of doctors per capita in Europe).

The map shown here can be used to inform debates regarding the planning of health services at the European level. For example, it enables us to understand better inequalities in health service provision across European regions and countries; at the same time, it allows us to make a case for a pan-European Health System which could involve the co-ordination of efforts and funding at the European level to arrange treatment and routine operations in countries and regions that have surplus medical staff. It’s easy to see that this could have great benefits for the populations in countries with longer hospital waiting lists and at the same time support the local and national economies of those areas affected most by the crisis.

Another policy-relevant debate that can be informed by the use of the ‘data geovisualisation’ presented here is that surrounding highly skilled migration and ‘brain drain’ in Europe at times of crisis. In particular, it is interesting to note that highly qualified professionals (including medical staff) in the regions hit the hardest by the recession and massive government cuts have been migrating over the past five years to regions with lower unemployment, mostly in the north and in countries like Germany. It can be argued that such movements of population not only help some regions and countries overcome their skill shortages, but that they also further contribute to the formation and bolstering of European identity, both in the receiving countries as well as in the minds of the migrating population.

On the other hand, these movements can be seen as a brain-drain for the originating regions with further negative economic and social implications. In any case, it is very important to point out that the cost of educating highly qualified professionals like doctors was typically not covered by the receiving country, but rather by the tax-payers of those sending countries, like Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, which made huge investments in their higher education systems in past decades. This is worth remembering when considering European solidarity! The point is simple but important: the investments in higher education (including medical schools) made by these countries in the past decades (and which have contributed to their high overall levels of government debt) are now benefiting the European Union as a whole via the migration of these highly skilled groups of individuals.

Indeed, there are many more examples of variables and themes that can be used to illustrate how mapping and conceptualising Europe as one place can inform relevant policy debates. Other examples might include migration, regional populations by age, unemployment, hospital beds and EU Spending.

Finally, in addition to the enrichment of the evidence base available to inform urban, regional, national and European policy simultaneously, we can plausibly hope that these new maps and cartograms of Europe may also enhance a sense of common identity, solidarity and belonging. By such means, perhaps we can slowly move away from a ‘nation-state mentality’ and towards the idea of Europe as a country united in diversity – in effect a Europe of cities and regions rather than nation-states.

Many thanks to the University of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute for giving us permission to reblog this piece.

Dimitris Ballas is co-author of The Social Atlas of Europe with Danny Dorling and Benjamin Hennig. Copies of the book can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like reading…Once upon a time there was a country called Europe

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The Transport Debate: What a ‘normal’ family experiences in modern-day Britain

Iain Docherty

Iain Docherty

Jon Shaw

Jon Shaw

After several years almost out-of-sight, transport is creeping up the political agenda with government decision-making on projects such as HS2 being vigorously scrutinised as never before. The transport debate is a genuinely novel approach to thinking through the choices that face individuals and society, using the familiar idea of the journey as the basis for discussion. The featured journeys – the commute, the school run, the business trip, the family visit and the summer holiday – are made by members of the fictional Smith family, who uncover a wide array of transport issues as they travel around middle England and beyond. The Smiths face up to the very same problems we all encounter as we travel around, and reflect on their experiences to start to think about why they actually come about; which policy trade-offs were responsible for creating them in the first place; what impacts we all have to suffer as a result; and what we can do to fix them.

The Commute
The central character Paul, the archetypal ‘Motorway Man’ on whom the outcome of the 2010 General Election was said to have hinged, used to drive the eight miles to and from work along the motorway each day. But Paul now takes the train to work most of the time: not because of anything that transport policy did, or that the rail service improved or even because the rising cost of petrol made him think about alternatives, but instead because his doctors implored him to get more exercise as well as giving up smoking and watching his diet. At first he found even the 10-minute walk either end of the train trip a chore, but he knew that just by taking the train to work he was building in more than the half hour’s exercise per day that he’d been told to aim for. Once he mastered the iPod the children bought him last Christmas, his morning and evening walks have become even became enjoyable.

His wife Susan, on the other hand, remains a die-hard driver. Her typical day begins with the school run, and then more battling through the traffic to her office on the edge of town. When Susan first began this commute the main road out to the business park was nice and quiet, and had a 40 mph limit. But when that new supermarket was built and it needed a big roundabout that slowed everything down … To add insult to injury, the road now has a 30 mph limit and bus lanes – bus lanes! – for much of its length. Stuck in a longer than usual queue one day, she stares at the empty red tarmac and concludes that every planner in the land is out to get her with their trendy ideas.

But it’s not until one unfortunate morning when both of the Smith’s cars are out of action that Susan is confronted with the everyday reality for people like her office cleaner who don’t have a car in the first place. Going in one direction to school and then the other to work seems almost impossible because the buses don’t seem to join up, so Susan ends up resorting to taxis and lift sharing. Being without her car is discomfiting, but the experience forces her to consider why the family’s life is organized the way it is. Securing a place requested for Sophie in a school with better results has certainly seemed to help her education. But the short walk to the school gates of old has been replaced by a much longer car trip in the opposite direction from work. And why does everybody have to be in the office at the same time each day anyway? It’s not as if lots of work couldn’t be done from home now, and that would make things much easier on days when things go wrong.

The Business Trip
Once a month, Paul makes the trip to this company HQ in London Docklands. Today, unimpressed with the idea of his usual walk to the station in a near-monsoon, he decides to get the bus. Paul likes to think of himself as reasonably tech-savvy and quickly checks the timetable online finding a bus in a few minutes that will do the trick. As he puts his phone away, he wonders why, in the days of video conferencing and Skype, his company still spends a load of money sending people from all over the place to sit around the same table for a few hours. But as his boss, John, once neatly summarized in his southern American drawl, face-to-face communication remains important in the digital age because ‘I need to see the whites of your eyes when you give me bad figures, dude’.

Paul’s journey to London turns out to be far removed from the ‘seamless’ experience that recent newspaper articles about improved public transport promised. He gets to the bus stop with a couple of minutes to spare according to the timetable only to see the tail-lights of a bus disappearing into the distance. Another one doesn’t show up until just after 7.15 and now he’s getting nervous about catching his train. Without really thinking he flashes his rail season ticket at the bus driver, who looks quizzically back. ‘That’s your train ticket, sir; it’s years since we did travelcards for the buses and trains on this route. If you’re going to the station, that’ll be £1.70.’ Paul fumbles around in his pocket, holding up the bus in the process of finding the correct change. Once sat down, he wonders why it’s all so different in London where everyone just taps in and out with an Oyster card.

Paul’s journey goes from bad to worse as he experiences the perils of our fragmented railway: pressed for time he forgot to get his London ticket from the machine at his local station, and as his train spends a long time limping into Birmingham New Street he’s only got a couple of minutes to get to the FastTicket machine and back to the platform. When he does so, the inevitable has happened: the doors have just closed, the member of platform staff offers an apologetic shake of the head, and the Pendolino eases off into the tunnel. When the train manager comes round Paul finds out that he’ll have to buy a new walk-on ticket for his journey since his apex ticket was only valid on the previous train. Amazed at the high prices, and realising he may well have to pay for the replacement ticket himself, Paul somewhat ignominiously walks out of First class and heads for Standard class. But hardly any of the seats have proper tables and there are no power sockets available. As he forgot to charge his laptop, he has to give up on his presentation, sleep replacing work for the next hour.

The Summer Holiday
All of the children are excited about the family holiday, even though it would not be cool for Jack to admit it and Sophie’s been telling all her friends that she’d rather be going on a party trip to Malia. Given that Sophie will be 18 next year, this may well be the last time that they all get to go on this kind of holiday together. So Paul and Susan decided the family should all go to the south of France together, a place that Paul and Susan visited twice before the children arrived, and loved.

At Heathrow, conversation turns to how busy the airport is and the amount of construction going on. Paul wonders if the go-ahead for the third runway has already in fact been given; and with the amount of time their plane spends waiting for a take-off slot, once airborne, the whole family is in agreement that it would be a good idea. Looking down at thousands of suburban houses just like the Smiths’ own, Paul wonders what the noise must be like for people living under the flight path.

The sun shines on the Cote d’Azur for the whole of the Smiths’ holiday and Paul and Susan’s stresses well and truly drift away. During the second week of the holiday, even Susan gets a bit tired of the beach and joins Paul for a day wandering around Nice. They can’t help but be impressed by the modern tram system and come across an exhibition about the construction of a new line. But it’s the quality of the public spaces and the extent of pedestrianisation that most surprises and delights them both – what a great place to walk around for the day spending money in the shops and cafés.

The following day it is with heavy hearts that everyone packs up their things and ambles to the station to begin the journey home. Tanned and reinvigorated after two weeks of sun and Mediterranean food and drink, the family boards the TGV for their final couple of days in Paris. A friend had suggested that the Smiths should go home by rail rather than fly. Of course they thought this was a ludicrous idea until they found out just how quick it was, and that they could get bargain fares by booking early. The family can’t believe how smooth the ride is at nearly 200 mph as the train roars past the Burgundy vineyards, and as they head north at such speed, Paul’s mind drifts back to the bumpy and cramped hours in a Pendolino that he endures every month. ‘Why is it that everything seems to cost more in Britain but the service quality isn’t so good?” he thinks, putting his earphones back in.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused
In the book, there is more about these and the other journeys that the Smiths make as they go about their daily lives. They begin to realize that the choices they make about how to travel, and how well the transport system meets their needs and wants, reveals much about our collective assumptions on how the economy works, and how transport can best contribute. Thinking through the interaction of these economic, social and environmental benefits and costs in the round, the authors arrive at three rather fundamental questions that illuminate The Transport Debate as we find it in the UK: first, what is it, actually, that we want our transport systems to do? Second, what is the optimal balance between the different kinds of benefits and costs that arise from our transport systems? Third, how do we set about achieving this balance?

Throughout the book, the authors celebrate the advantages of a modern transport system, but argue that years of poorly conceived and executed transport policy have resulted in Britain’s transport system being far worse than it should be. They show that substandard transport creates economic, social and environmental costs, but also how these can be addressed through affordable and politically deliverable changes.

The transport debate was published in January 2014 by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. Jon Shaw is Professor and Head of Geography with Plymouth University. Iain Docherty is Professor of Public Policy and Governance and Head of Management at the University of Glasgow.

Reproduced with kind permission of the authors and Transport Times.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates


Path to the Possible

Democracy toward the Horizon


Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Shot by both sides

The blog of Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP

Paul Collins's Running Blog

Running and London Marathon 2013 Training

Bristol Civic Leadership Project

A collaborative project on change in local governance

Stuck on Social Work

And what a great place to be

Points: The Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society

short and insightful writing about a long and complex history

Urban policy and practice

Publishing with a purpose


Policy & Politics blog with a focus on place


Publishing with a purpose

Public Administration Review

Public Administration Review is a professional journal dedicated to advancing theory and practice in public administration.


European Politics and Policy

Urban Studies Journal

Publishing with a purpose


Official Blog of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham


The official blog of the Journal of Public Policy

Social Europe

politics, economics and employment & labour


Publishing with a purpose


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,329 other followers

%d bloggers like this: