The people’s Overground

The new names for London’s much-loved ginger line aren’t bad. But they do hint at the state’s suspicion when it comes to public engagement in public projects

February 20, 2024
In the driving seat? Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, revealing the new Overground line names on 15th February. Image: Jonathan Brady / PA Images / Alamy
In the driving seat? Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, revealing the new Overground line names on 15th February. Image: Jonathan Brady / PA Images / Alamy

When it comes to names, humans of the past didn’t tend to be very imaginative. While we can never know the exact origin of most placenames, many signs point to quite literal geographic markers. Aberdeen, where I studied, literally means “the place at the confluence of the River Dee”; London, where I now live, possibly comes from a proto-Celtic phrase meaning “the place that floods”. If you want a more modern and more definite example of this habit, you have only to look at New Zealand, where the logic of naming is so obvious you can practically hear the sort of conversations that probably went on in the Colonial Office: this land to the north, what should we call it? Northland. And this land, to the south? Southland. And this coast, on the west…?

While a bit bland, there is a kind of certainty to this convention: geography has a consistency that is not only uncontroversial but feels permanent. Major climate catastrophe notwithstanding—and shifting tectonic plates in mind—Aberdeen will be at the confluence of the River Dee for a very, very long time. This fact is as enduring as it is undeniable.

It’s when names start venturing into the realm of ideas that things can get murky. Ideas, like the human beings who come up with them, change with time and shifts in attitudes. They are often inconsistent, in ways both knowable and not. And they differ from person to person.

It’s perhaps quite telling that, in its announcement of new names for the six lines that make up the London Overground network, Transport for London (TfL) was quick to stress the geographical ties to the names it had chosen. The Mildmay line, for example, relates to an east London hospital that pioneered HIV treatment; the Weaver line alludes to the former glory of the textile industries; the Lioness line goes through Wembley; and so on. But the reality is, even in the best of cases, all of them say more about what we think about an area as opposed to what that area is. They are, fundamentally, value judgements.

There was never going to be any name that wouldn’t cause at least some sort of grumbling. Any potential name, especially in a public project involving so many stakeholders, is vulnerable to being dismissed as either tacky, boring, “problematic” or just plain bad. (This was especially true for the Overground project, where the prospect of settling for pre-existing, geographically inspired names—such as “Goblin” for the line between Gospel Oak and Barking, or “Lea Valley” for the one between Enfield and Liverpool Street—was regarded by TfL as a non-starter.)

But it is precisely because there is the potential to find something disagreeable in a name that we have ended up with a series of them that are beyond disagreement, by introducing something—an idea—that it would be plainly absurd to disagree with. To disagree with the name “Suffragette”, for example, is tantamount to suggesting, implicitly or inadvertently, that the achievement of universal suffrage is not worthy of celebration—or, worse, that the fact women have the right to vote is a “political” issue, which is to say up for debate. Faced with a name that contains a value judgement that obfuscates other kinds of critique, it’s not surprising that some should find the new labels a little irksome.

With all this being said, I’m possibly guilty here of being a bit of a curmudgeon. Judging by initial feedback from Caribbean communities along the soon-to-be Windrush line, at least some public reaction has been quite positive. If a public project is doomed never to please everyone, you might as well make sure you please the people who matter. In that sense, any “controversy” is simply passing noise.

And yet, the fact we have to rely on public hearsay or media reports to gauge opinion leaves me wondering just how much say the public had in this project to begin with.

Spearheading the Overground’s rebrand was creative agency DNCO, which some might know as the agency sine qua non for many of the capital’s regeneration projects. In the past it has worked for the likes of the quasi-public White City Place, a “creative hub” of office blocks in west London that also reserves the right to kick people off the grass after dark. (“Networked for Creative Thought” apparently, but only within working hours.) 

Simon Yewdall, one of the directors of DNCO, told the BBC that the agency team spent weeks travelling on the Overground, speaking to commuters, poets, writers and experts on the history of the area. Yewdall didn’t disclose just how many people the team spoke to, but he does reveal what it got out of them: “hundreds” of, you guessed it, ideas

Judging from my own (granted, small) experience of working in design agencies—and with the caveat that I don’t have the full details of DNCO’s method, and so can only speculate as to its rigour—I wouldn’t find it surprising if, as is so often the case in any project filtered through a given agency’s “creative” interpretation, TfL had ended up with exactly the kind of names it wanted in the first place. To bring this back into the realm of politics, you could say the longlist was perhaps more an interpretation of the people’s will than a direct expression by the people themselves. 

Again, this is all just speculation. But the idea that the public must be consulted but not trusted is typical of how so many projects of this nature operate. Perhaps those who would otherwise wish for more genuine public consultation are still reeling from Boaty McBoatface, or New Zealand’s Laser Kiwi Flag. But preventing the public from having a tangible and direct say in what they call their own places and communities—without the veneer of corporate respectability—is a sort of low-level disenfranchisement.

And yet, are local authorities—already constrained by tight budgets and a fear that anything they do risks opening another frontier in a culture war they would rather not wage—in any position to do more? We probably don’t need a public consultation to figure out the answer to that one.