It’s time to stop judging the north of England by the state of its high streets

Boarded up shops in Droylsden, Greater Manchester, 2015. Image: Getty.

Bolton town centre is going through an “existential struggle,” a journalist lamented recently in a mournful Guardian article that put George Orwell’s bleak depictions of the north to shame.

The town has been going through a “downward spiral,” Andy Walton wrote, ever since the football stadium moved out of town twenty years ago and a retail park was built away from the centre, sparking the slow death of the town’s commercial heart” as shops and shoppers dwindle.

This is far from the first article depicting an entire town as a wasteland because of the state of its local economy. And these places tend to be in the north of England, rather than other parts of the country.

Earlier this year Vice wrote about the “terminal decline” of Blackpool, painting the entire town as a festering breeding ground for all that is bleak and miserable. And the Spectator once argued that the north’s former industrial heartlands are “decaying” and not worth rescuing. We paint poverty porn pictures for dramatic effect – like in this Economist article, which states: “On the edge of the marina in Hartlepool, an ugly wasteland sits behind a sign advertising ‘luxury sea view apartments’ which were never built.”

But clumsily diagnosing entire towns with death sentences, by focusing on economics and nothing else, is just another way of perpetuating damaging stereotypes about the north. Associating northerners with tea and flat caps is one thing; but blanket statements declaring the death of entire northern towns based purely on high street shopping only fuel the assumptions that northerners are uninformed and uneducated, and the only thing they’re good for is spending. Otherwise, why would the shutting of a few shops spell such disaster?

There’s no denying that large parts of the north are in serious economic trouble. Last year, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report concluded that 10 of the UK’s 12 most struggling cities, based on employment rates, levels of highly-qualified workers and the number and type of full-time jobs, are located in the north. And the north-south divide touches all corners of people’s lives, from unemployment to health, life expectancy, education and job prospects, and lower life satisfaction and happiness.

The consequences of people taking their custom online are felt particularly hard up north. One in four shops is vacant in Bolton, and the rest of the north doesn’t fare much better. Local Data Company, which monitors 3,000 town and shopping centres and retail parks, reported in 2015 that one in five shops in the north was empty, compared with one in 10 in the south. And one year on from the demise of BHS, 47 per cent of its stores in greater London have reopened, compared with just 25 per cent in the north east.

But to say these struggles cut to the “heart” of a northern town is unhelpful, elitist wordplay that suggests there’s nothing else going for the north outside of this one dying component of capitalism.

Bolton hit back after the Guardian’s takedown, and the council’s leader, Cliff Morris, says the town is “nothing like that. We don’t wear cloth caps and clogs.” He went on to list all the improvements happening locally, including museums and award-winning parks.

And the town isn’t alone in thriving outside of high street footfalls. Hull has gone from a struggling city, voted worst place to live in 2003, to this year’s City of Culture. And Lonely Planet gave Leeds fifth place in its “Top European destinations” in 2017, praising it for its “flourishing cultural scene” among other things. 

In the heart of the Lake District, the town of Kendal shows how local economy and culture can be far from mutually exclusive. It faces a “steady and serious slimming down of its economy,” and now needs a food bank – but it also has two museums, an art gallery and an arts centre.

In 2008, the think tank Policy Exchange said many northern towns have no hope of being regenerated, and that it’s time to “stop pretending there is a bright future for Sunderland”. It added that, “People in the north should be told bluntly that their best chance of an affluent future is to move south”.

This year the council outlined a nine-year plan to create 20,000 skilled jobs, mostly in the city’s automotive industry; £1.6bn has been invested in the area’s infrastructure, including new hotels, a “cultural quarter,” improved rail connectivity to London and a “sports quarter,” to name a few.

Walton notes near the end of his Guardian piece that it’s not all doom and gloom in Bolton: a cinema has been built in the centre, the market hall has been renovated and the museum and art gallery are set for investment.

Most importantly, “hopes are pinned on the University of Bolton. The former polytechnic’s teaching and residential buildings have been consolidated in the town centre,” he writes.

But this is good news, he explains, because the buildings will bring with them “a readymade group of customers”. It will, but it will also bring with it far more than a new batch of student loan-happy shoppers. These customers will no doubt also be innovators, creators and great thinkers.

These once-booming industrial northern towns have survived and been shaped by globalisation, Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strikes, and the industrial revolution. Doom-mongering media attention won’t kill them – and neither will the so-called death of the high street.


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.