What makes a truly great high street?

The best street ever, apparently. Image: Academy of Urbanism.

Last week, the Academy of Urbanism held its annual Urbanism awards. The much coveted Best European City prize went to Rotterdam, which attracted votes  thanks to its "predominantly young, open, tolerant community", "urban design" and "new business models".

What intrigued us, though, was the "Great Street" award, which is given to a standout UK high street or main road every year. What about a street could make it better than all the other streets, we wondered? And what criteria would you use to decide?

For clues, we looked to this year's winner: the confusingly named "Bridge Street / North Street" in Taunton, a town in Somerset, which fought off Elwick Road in Ashford, Kent to the top spot.

 Excitement building, we headed to Google Street View to take a look at this award-winning road. This is what we found:

Slightly disheartened, we headed a little further down the road (it's quite long; hence, we suppose, the two names):

Don't get us wrong – Bridge Street / North Street looks like a perfectly nice main road, replete with a Poundland and a White Stuff. But from what we could see, there didn't seem to be anything particularly special about it – and if we’re being really picky, as high streets go, a non-pedestrianised one seems an odd choice.

But, we assumed, the judges at the Academy of Urbanism must have had their reasons, so we asked Geoff Haslam, an Academy member, architect and the lead assessor for the award, what they were. Apparently, the award actually goes to streets which are good examples of either “transformation” or “stewardship” by the local council – they’re not perfect, but they’re going in the right direction.

According to Haslam and the assessors’ report, Taunton’s high road stuck out for the following reasons:

1. The council is improving things

About 10 years ago, the town authorities invested, like many others, in a repaving and traffic calming scheme for the high street. Taunton’s advantage though, according to Haslam, was the decade-long plan it put together to make sure progress continued: that included more traffic measures and bypasses to draw non-shopper traffic away from the high street.

2. It’s like most other high streets, but a bit better

Haslam agrees that “the street itself is not dissimilar to many high streets”. Yet somehow, it beat off Elwick Street in Ashford, which, in Haslam’s words, was “fantastic, in pure design terms”.

Bridge Street / North Street apparently won out because it contained a good balance of cars – necessary in a large town, Haslam says, to keep trade up – and pedestrian measures. Recently, for example, the Taunton city authority improved the pedestrian route from the train station and built a few new pedestrian  bridges on routes into the town centre.  

3. Areas off the main road have been converted into public spaces and cafés

… like this charming area on James Street, just off the main road (we imagine the scaffolding’s gone by now)


Members of the academy nominate streets for the award (there were around 70 entrants this year), and provide photos, quotes from locals and context to show how the street has changed over the past year. The judges then pay a visit to the final three locations, and judge on criteria including environmental sustainability, “local character”, transport options, commercial success and the value the street holds for the community.

 So if you’d like to see your high street up on that stage next year, start lobbying an Academy member now. And maybe introduce some new speed bumps and delightful cafes with outdoor seating.


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.