The decision to expand Heathrow is a betrayal of the Attlee government's New Towns programme

Gatwick, which lies besides the New Town of Crawley. Image: Getty.

We have a housing crisis in 2016: that much is relatively uncontroversial. But compared to the housing crisis in 1946, it’s fairly small time.

In the years after the Second World War, Britain, and particularly London, faced up to the reality of the destruction wrought by the German Luftwaffe. One in three homes had been damaged during the war, with 250,000 left uninhabitable and a further 250,000 severely damaged.

Exacerbating this was the fact that, before the war, the government had been building an unprecedented 350,000 new houses per year – a supply that was cut off by the outbreak of war.

In 1945, the government estimated that, to afford separate houses to each family requesting one, some 750,000 houses would need to be built. Over the next few years, Britain’s government would undertake the most aggressive, ambitious house-building programme of modern times.

Why is this relevant in 2016? The long-awaited verdict on airport expansion has been delivered and awarded a third runway to Heathrow. Alongside HS2, this will form the most ambitious infrastructure project of the next two decades, creating, in its wake, jobs, housing, and civic construction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the coagulation of air industry interests in the Heathrow project, that the West London site has been selected – but it risks further disavowing the housing projects set in motion by the Attlee government of 1946.

Facing up to the reality of overspill slum dwellings in London, the Labour government of 1946 – coordinated by Nye Bevan, the minister of health with responsibility for housing – put in place the legislation to create a series of new towns, predominantly in satellite positions around London. Seven decades later, these towns are busy but also much-maligned. Despite being inextricably linked to the post-war philosophy, these towns took decades to build and populate; by that time, public opinion had turned against them, as costs rose and fashions changed. A political football, kicked from Attlee’s Labour government back to the Tories, and then back to Labour in 1964, nobody wanted to claim ownership of the project.

And now, Theresa May, the 14th different prime minister since the creation of the New Towns, has foregone her responsibility to them. For all the talk of environmental and noise issues, and resident disapproval, the expansion of an airport brings with it security and prosperity – it is fundamentally a good thing for any community. Heathrow expansion privileges West London suburbs, particularly Hounslow, and the town of Slough (not a New Town, though it is often mistaken for one due to its unfortunate architecture), where industry is already due to be consolidated by the arrival of HS2. That’s without mentioning that Heathrow is already the busiest airport in Europe and 6th busiest in the world. Further development of Heathrow risks over-centralising London’s aviation industry on a single site – jeopardising the success of a housing project that’s been 70 years in the making.


The problem of Crawley

The New Towns Act was not just designed to draw residents out of London, but also jobs. The expansion of Gatwick after the Second World War provided an industrial hub for the South-East that facilitated a decentralisation of housing development.

Without that concurrent development, neither the business-oriented New Town of Crawley or the cultural capital of Brighton would’ve been able to thrive as they have done. The Attlee government’s strategy was to push jobs out of the London metropolis, into areas where cost-effective housing could be built; by putting all our eggs into the Heathrow basket, we are disadvantaging a precarious situation in the South-East.

Much has been made of the employment health of the areas surrounding Gatwick, but the reality is that they are highly dependent on the airport. Companies such as Thales, Virgin and Novo Nordisk are headquartered in the area due to its transport links. The imbalance that will be created in the capacity of Heathrow and Gatwick will not simply create jobs in Berkshire, it will take jobs away from Sussex.

If the New Towns Act were being written now, it would share many of the philosophies of the Northern Powerhouse, albeit with more socialist ideology. Since expansion of Manchester airport was not viable under the proposals offered to the 2012 Airport Commission, many held Heathrow up as the “rest of the UK” option, apparently under the fallacious impression that Gatwick is somehow hemmed in by London.

It’s not: Gatwick is better supplied by rail from major London hubs like Victoria, Euston, London Bridge, and Liverpool Street, and whilst only served by the M23, that road is less busy than the nightmarish M25/M3/ M40 axis that serves Heathrow. More to the point, both Gatwick and Heathrow fall in the South-East region, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. We must understand and accept that this decision was, in its essence, about how best to distribute the inherent London privilege.

Decentralisation of industry was written into the founding documents of the New Towns, but with the government’s expansion of Heathrow we are creating an homogenous and insuperable air monolith. Travel is one of our most important industries, even in this post-Brexit world. And putting the arguments for cost and construction aside, the government has a responsibility to follow through on the promises of a reconstruction programme started in our country’s darkest hour and which is still thriving in the murky twilight of today.

In his final report outlining the project before it went to parliament, Lord Reith called the New Towns “an essay in civilization”. That essay is being unwritten, and it is those in need of jobs and housing who will lose out.

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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: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

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.