Five thoughts inspired by three days in Liverpool

Liverpool from Everton Park. Image: Jonn Elledge.

I’ve just returned from three days in Liverpool. Ostensibly I was there for Labour conference, but, as promised, I spent a fair chunk of my time wandering on both sides of the Mersey, in an attempt to improve my knowledge of a city I’ve not visited in years.

Obviously there’s a limit to what you can learn about a city in three days. A couple of hours in the local history museum – which is fabulous, by the way – will only get you so far. 
So what follows is a collection of half-formed thoughts and first impressions, rather than a detailed academic thesis. You’re welcome to argue with me on Twitter or Facebook. I might even be arguing with myself in a couple of weeks.

(EDIT TO ADD: Someone asked me to point out that some Liverpudlians think that what you're about to read is “a load of shite”. Fair play. Others have been very nice about it, though, so I'm not going to quit my job and do something more useful with my life just yet.)

Nonetheless, before I forget, here are five thoughts.

A city that lost its purpose

I obviously knew that Liverpool was a port city, but I hadn’t fully grasped that this was basically the city’s entire reason for being there. It was little more than a fishing village when, in 1715, the world’s first enclosed commercial dock opened under what is now the Liverpool One shopping centre.

Over the course of the next two centuries, as the importance of transatlantic trade grew, new docks spread north and south along the Mersey shore for more than seven miles. By the mid 19th century, Liverpool was the second port of the British Empire, behind only London. Its position made it the ideal place to import materials and export goods from the industrial north. 


The Port of Liverpool is still busy (though by 2014 it had dropped to sixth in the list of British ports). But, as in port cities all over the world, the docks just don’t generate that many jobs any more. In the mid 20th century, “containerisation” meant that fewer dockers were needed to load and unload ships. (Containers are generally unpacked at their destinations, inland.) Container ships also required new, deeper docks, rendering most of Liverpool’s historic facilities redundant. Oh, and de-industrialisation means there are simply fewer goods coming into and out of the north.

In other words, Liverpool is a city that has, literally, lost its original purpose.

Transport won’t solve everything 

Something people don’t often mention about Liverpool: it has an underground railway. Only a small one, admittedly – four stops, relatively close together in the city centre, served by commuter trains from the suburbs beyond. But it’s been there a while: the oldest section, opened in 1896 to connect the city with Birkenhead, across the Mersey, was the first deep-level tube in the world. 

Once upon a time, in fact, the city had an even better transport network. Most cities had trams, back in the day, but Liverpool also had an elevated railway, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which ran along the waterfront from Seaforth to Dingle. In its day, the “Dockers’ Umbrella” was as much a symbol of its city as London’s Tube; it closed in 1956, when the company that owned it found it couldn’t afford to replace its crumbling infrastructure.

One of the themes of UK urbanism in recent years – the theory at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse project – has been the assumption that improving transport, connecting people with jobs, will improve our cities. But Liverpool once had great transport. It still declined. Today, there are British cities with worse transport networks. It hasn’t helped it bounce back. 

I don’t want to over-correct on this, and start claiming transport doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, Liverpool has slightly shaken my faith that better transport will fix the north.

Progress sometimes doesn’t always look like much 

One of the areas of Liverpool I was most keen to check out was the Baltic Triangle: a roughly triangular area between the Anglican Cathedral and the Queen’s Dock, named for the historic Baltic Fleet pub. It’s the bit where hipsters and start-ups live: according to the blurb, “once the city’s well-worn workshop, [it’s] now a cutting-edge destination where pioneering creatives work and play”.

It’s a dump.

The Baltic Triangle. Image: Pete Carr.

I was expecting something more like London’s Shoreditch or Manchester’s Northern Quarter – all bars and iMacs and flat whites. But in the Baltic Triangle, the streets are all dusty, half the place is a building site, and warehouses still look like warehouses.

But that, I suspect, is because people are using them to actually make stuff, rather than poncing about in a cafe convincing themselves they’re Elon Musk. In other words, I think the problem here is with me, rather than with the Baltic Triangle. I need to check my prejudices.

A good brand isn’t everything 

I’m sounding like I’m really down on Liverpool: I’m not, I actually sort of love it. Not naming any names, but there are some British cities I’ve been to which I found genuinely – unexpectedly – depressing.

Liverpool isn’t like that, at all. The city centre looks great, the redeveloped docks look fantastic, and the view from the hill in Everton Park (as above) must be one of the most glorious to be found anywhere in any British city. There’s also as much energy and municipal pride in the city as you’ll find anywhere.

And yet, the city is still in decline on the most basic of measures: it’s one of the few large British cities that’s home to fewer people than it was in the early 1980s. And, while anecdote isn’t data, there seemed to be a lot of high quality office space standing empty in the city centre.

Liverpool feels like it should be able to bounce back from de-industrialisation. So far, though, it hasn’t.

But a good brand is something 

Not sure that's a selling point, lads. Image: Getty.

That said, something Liverpool is not short of is tourists. Thanks to the Beatles and football, and perhaps even history, the city attracts visitors in numbers most big English cities would kill for.

That name recognition should hold it in good stead as the new metro mayor – almost certain to be Labour’s Steve Rotheram – tries to sell the region to the world next year. The Liverpool name won’t be enough to attract investment and jobs – but it should at least help kick the door open.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.