Why urban and transport planning must be democratic?

Packed rail platform in London. The Guardian

During my trip to London past week I’ve stumbled this interesting articles on labour market, transport and riots in London in the letters section of the newpaper The Guardian. I’d like to bring here the whole articles and raise a few questions at the end.

The real problem is not a lack of transport infrastructure in London, but an absurd concentration of jobs in our capital city (Looming London transport crisis ‘risks sparking riots’, 22 September). This has led to shockingly high house prices and to priced-out workers then having to travel long distances to work. If we provide more and cheaper transport links, we allow yet more jobs to be based there and we subsidise employers who wish to be based in an expensive city but still pay low wages. Surely the best solution is for public sector jobs to move out of London and into areas of high unemployment, where there is much less pressure on transport and other services. In particular, parliament could move to somewhere cheaper and more central. Many private sector jobs would follow.

Richard Mountford

Tonbridge, Kent

Just days into the English devolution debate sparked by the Scottish referendum result, Peter Hendy’s crass warning of riots by the capital’s low-paid workers unless more major infrastructure projects like Crossrail 2 are built is a timely reminder of just how hard it is going to be to shift the interests that continue to concentrate almost all national major infrastructure investment in the capital, without any democratic debate involving the rest of the country. Meanwhile, in the regions served by Northern Rail, the Department for Transport imposes record fare increases on rail commuters packed into obsolete trains, which may, if we are lucky, be replaced by refurbished District line rolling stock, (Report, 7 September).

Michael White

Doncaster

Transport for London proposes to spend billions to ensure that lower-paid workers must live further away from their place of work, thus adding to their already long working day and increasing their travelling costs. Surely the answer is more housing for low-paid workers, not making London inhabitable by only the rich. This is not just a London problem. The imbalance between London and the rest of the country is unsustainable. That must be a part of the debate the entire country should be having following the Scottish referendum.

David Pugh

Newtown, Powys

Here are now my questions and reflections:

  • What interests are behind the tendency to concentrate the jobs in the major cities? I think that this is also happening in other European capitals as Madrid or Paris and it must be seen as a phenomenon that is shaping our society and economy in a context of global capitalism.
  • The output of this tendency seems pretty clear. As the city is getting larger and larger, low-paid workers has two options: overspend their income in expensive housing near the working place or having to travel long distances to work. Neither of them seems to be a solution to social discontent and potential riots.
    I’m not sure about the solution provided by Richard Mountford. To what extend “public sector jobs to move out of London and into areas of high unemployment” is a solution?. It may increase the spatial mobility?. It may have a multiplier effect on commuting. Citizens moving from one area to another just to do different things. I think the idea is interesting, but it seems to me that the logical thing would be to decentralize the public sector, i.e. to set up branches in major outlying areas. That would also increase employment in those areas.
  • On the other hand, this discussion reminds us that urbanism and economy go hand in hand. Or rather, urban development and a fair distribution of resources go hand in hand. Therefore, you cannot understand urban planning without democracy. Improving our cities and regions depends on it. So I couldn’t agree more with Michael White article.
  • What is more, the democratic debate must involve the rest of the country. It also applies to other countries. For instance, the Spanish transport system over the last decades (or more) has been based on a concentration of wealth in the capital Madrid. This is informed by the obsession for communicating Madrid and the periphery. It seems that Spain is the country with the most kilometers of high-speed rail (pretty much the same in terms of roads). This obsession may lead to build new kilometers at any price or, what is worse, at the expense of passengers security. Remember Santiago de Compostela accident. Neither this accident nor the crisis doesn’t seem to have changed the view of Spanish politicians. At least in UK they have more democratic debate as the recent Scottish referendum has proved. This leads me to reflect once again on the strong relationship between democracy, urbanism, transport, economics and welfare.
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