Green solutions for London

Only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, your local deli suffers and Londo

If you have been on the Victoria Line going south from Euston station lately, you might have noticed the latest innovation in tube entertainment across the platform.

I regularly use this platform on my way from Kentish Town to my job in South Kensington and, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted them: three bright billboard adverts moving about on the other side of the tunnel. My first thought (and the one I’ve had every time I’ve used the platform since) was along the lines of “oh, horrific, look away, look away!” but most of my fellow commuters seem to have been of the “hmm, that’s quite impressive” school instead.

Keeping an eye on us all every day, no doubt marking me down in the ‘severe negative reaction’ column, were various people with clipboards, so this was clearly some sort of trial taking place. Despite my disgust, the ads have persisted (admittedly only showing promotions for the tube, various charities and the holders of the tube advert monopoly, CBS Outdoor) so I thought I’d investigate what was going on.

A quick visit to the CBS website revealed I was witnessing the latest enhancement to the ‘travel experience’ of tube passengers and was an unwitting part of a four-week trial for their new Cross Track Projection (XTP for short) digital advertising technology. Just when I thought my journey into work couldn’t pack in one more compelling sales message, I’m to have this barrage ‘enhanced’ by moving images – oh joy.

As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, a bit of clicking around led me to the extremely sinister London Commuter website, where CBS have been conducting and promoting an extensive survey of advertising and travelling in London. It turns out that each of us spends more than 13 hours every month involuntarily reading adverts placed strategically on our public transport infrastructure.

Even more unsettling, CBS calls this ‘Captive Message Time’ and are looking for ways to provide better value to their clients with distracting moving digital ‘experiences’ in as many places as possible: the XTP systems will soon be appearing on 24 stations across the network. I also discovered they are putting together a targeting system called ‘GMap’ which is busy working out exactly which of us is looking at which adverts when, and no doubt what ‘messages’ we are most vulnerable to on each occasion.

At this point, I was sorely tempted to throw down my mouse and draw up a pledge in my own blood to stamp all this out. But, as Green candidate for Mayor of London, I have to consider the other factors at play here. Advertising revenue goes towards making it possible to pay for things like reduced fares and service improvements. And there is certainly something to be said for this kind of judicious use of corporate cash, especially as the advertisers don’t actually get to mess up the signals or demand extra subsidies, unlike PPP pirates Metronet.

Moreover, it seems the CBS research suggests most commuters actually like the fact we have adverts to look at while we wend our way to work and wait for interminable ‘London Transport minutes’ to pass by on the platform indicators (these are similar to those ‘downloading file’ Microsoft minutes in that they never correspond to units of actual time). The figures in the survey are quite conclusive: while 74% of us would rather there were no adverts at all on the TV, 87% of us prefer the tube with advertising and 73% even like those scary anti-benefit claimant adverts on buses.

So, given that banning adverts would also mean kissing goodbye to tens of millions in cash, which would have to be made up some other way, even a Green Mayor would have to swallow the temptation to shoo the advertisers away and fill the space with art.

A better plan would be actually to increase the amount of advertising space on the tube, but reduce the cost of the new spaces; preserving revenue but making more of the space affordable to smaller, locally based businesses – exactly the kind of businesses Greens want to see flourish. With minimum space policies imposed and digital adverts taking over, only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, so your local deli suffers and London’s economy as a whole is pushed further into dependence on large corporations and the City – not healthy for any of us.

A more self-reliant London means stronger local economies, so smaller businesses need access to ‘Captive Message Time’ too, and that’s what this would help to achieve.

The second part of the plan would be to bring in a more ethical advertising policy for London’s transport system. Green businesses are another sector we want to help succeed, and clearing out the dodgier end of the advertising spectrum (such as gas-guzzling 4x4s, for example) would help companies wanting to promote their deals for solar panels for your roof, or their local food delivery scheme, to gain entry to commuter minds as well.

So, local and green businesses would get a leg up; books, films, plays, UK holidays and local attractions could all stay; but those adverts for far-flung mini-breaks would have to go.

But the big question is will the people who hate TV adverts but love transport posters take to moving adverts on the tube? For the answer, I guess we will have to wait and see the results of CBS’s experiment at Euston. I do hope my morning scowling shows up in their reports.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.