Beyond boomgoggling: Five steps to a good city economy

Ebbw Vale, in the South Wales Valleys: an example of a good economy? Image: MortimerCat/Wikimedia Commons.

A year ago, we at New Start magazine set out to tour the UK’s major cities, mapping “alternative” approaches to local economics. We knew that mainstream local economic development was not doing what it should do, despite glowing reports of growth from cities themselves – so we wanted to find out if other approaches were working better.

Our first stop was Manchester, where the problem was summed up in one phrase: “doughnuts of deprivation”. This phrase was used to describe the inner city areas that had been left behind by the boosterist, agglomeration model of local economics that dominates our cities.

In each of the ten cities we visited we found such places, areas that decades of investment, new infrastructure and economic growth in cities had yet to reach. And yet “boomgoogling” – expecting that an enterprise zone or infrastructure project will solve a city’s poverty – remains the mainstream approach to city economies.

We quickly ditched the word “alternative”, as the limitations and outdatedness of the traditional local economic approach became apparent. The “good” city economic models we found – from hospitals creating local and social supply chains, to digital factories based on estates, co-working spaces for the growing number of self-employed people and community land trusts building affordable housing – are not alternatives. Rather, they’re approaches that work.

We came up with 10 steps to a good city economy. Here are five:

A revolution in grassroots enterprise: At a time when the vast majority of people work in businesses employing fewer than 10 people, why do our city’s economic policies focus so heavily on luring big business to invest in them?

While the mainstream model chases and incentivises the big, a revolution is happening among the small. Co-working spaces are popping up in the valleys of south Wales and in empty buildings in Scotland, and “soup” events are helping kickstart small business ideas.

In Liverpool a markerspace, set up using funds from a community-run car park, is based next to the city’s so-called “enterprise zone”. But while small enterprises are being created at the makerspace, just outside of the zone, huge swathes of former dockland owned by corporate Peel Holdings and inside the “enterprise zone”, have been derelict for years.

Anchor institutions embedded in and working for the local economy: With little public sector funding around, each penny of the public purse should be spent, not only efficiently, but it such a way that it does multiple things.

Sandwell Council and the Sandwell & West Birmingham Hospitals NHS trust are building a new hospital across two of the UK’s most deprived areas. When that hospital opens in 2018, it will be embedded within those communities as Cadbury’s was in Bourneville. Its food supplies and other products will be procured locally, and those living on its doorstep will become its employees.

Local leadership that is enabling and empathic: Austerity has hit our cities hard and councils can no longer do the things they used to do. A new style of municipal leader is emerging, one that stewards and enables.

Birmingham council has shifted to listening mode, and is intent on devolving power to its local communities. Bristol and Nottingham councils have set up energy companies to make inroads into fuel poverty in the city.

True corporate responsibility: Big business is disconnected from the places in which it is based and the needs of its workers, as the rise of zero hour contracts and low wages attest.

But mainstream economics still heavily supports it and in particular those businesses that are seen as high-growth. Places like Enfield are holding their big businesses to account, and working in particular with “mundane” employers that create the jobs that most people work in – the supermarkets, care homes and utilities.

Co-produced local economic development: Our idea of what an economy is has narrowed over time and is now more or less synonymous with big business and the corporate private sector.

But an economy would not work without the myriad of social connections and transactions that go on in a place. Why are the few making economic decisions for the many? A People’s Plan for Manchester is bringing communities and social sector organisations into the devolution process.

We finished our tour one day before the vote for Brexit, seen by many as a protest and cry for help from those marginalised places still waiting to benefit from the mainstream economic growth strategy.

Perhaps if those making national and local economic decisions take off their boomgoogles, understand the reality of the needs of their people and places, and work with local partners to address them, this “good” approach to local economics can move into the mainstream.

To read all ten steps to a good city economy and the “Creating Good City Economies in the UK” report, click here.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine. She tweets as @claregoff.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.