Brexit must not mean the end of city-region devolution

Those were the days, huh? Chancellor George Osborne launching the Northern Rail Hub upgrade in 2014. Image: Getty.

British politics has entered a state of flux unprecedented in recent times: with the country having voted to leave the EU, a new leader of the Conservative party to be elected by the end of August, a new government to be formed shortly thereafter, and the prospect of a General Election before the year is out.

Add to these factors an opposition in turmoil and renewed calls for independence in Scotland and Wales, and everything that we thought we knew about the policy agenda for the remainder of the Parliament has been thrown up into the air. That leaves big questions hanging over the future of city-region devolution.

As has been well documented, major devolution to English city-regions has been primarily driven by the chancellor George Osborne, a key figure in the current government, but one whose future is now far from clear.

The experience of the last six years is that the active commitment of the most senior figures in government is required to make significant progress on devolving substantial powers from the centralised UK state. With the chancellor having ruled himself out of the running to be the new Conservative leader, it is difficult at this stage to assess how big a priority devolution will be for other candidates.

This picture is complicated further by the prospect of a general election before the end of 2016. Many, from across the political spectrum, are suggesting it is highly likely that the new government will seek a mandate of its own, particularly with regards the negotiated exit from the European Union.

The implications of an early election for delivering existing policy commitments on devolution should not be underestimated. With recess approaching, even a short campaign in the autumn could delay or de-rail the already ambitious timeline for holding metro mayor elections in May next year, irrespective of who emerges victorious, or on what manifesto.

Given how difficult the political negotiations have been to secure the current devolution deals – between national and local government, and between Conservative and Labour politicians – it is also far from clear whether the various actors involved will be able to resist the diverging pressures placed upon them to either pause, or walk away from, agreements until after polling day.

Nor is it clear how big a role devolution would play in the policy platforms of an early election. Not only are the positions of the Conservative candidates for leader unclear, we mustn’t forget that Labour is currently undergoing a political crisis of its own. The national party’s position on devolution may have been uncertain to this point, but it is now frankly impossible to say what kind of policies they would put forward for any snap election in 2016, let alone speculate regarding their chances of winning.

Indeed, even when the Conservatives and Labour have settled the questions regarding their leadership, it is easy to imagine a scenario whereby – politically and practically – the focus for both parties shifts to how powers can be repatriated from Brussels to Westminster, rather than devolved from Westminster to cities and city regions across the country.

Reasons to be cheerful

Yet despite the shadows hanging over the devolution agenda, the nature of the political crises facing the country mean its successful delivery has never been more important.

Take the need to restore trust in UK politics – if the vote to leave the EU was in part driven by a disconnect between large parts of the country and the political establishment in Westminster, then delivering stronger, democratically accountable leadership for places can be a trigger to re-engage more people in the political process.

Or, consider how we tackle the longstanding economic challenges facing many parts of the country, and which the EU referendum results have shone a fresh light on. Clearly, devolution alone can’t solve these issues. But ensuring more decisions over the things that make a real difference to local economies and people’s day to day lives – like skills, housing and transport – are taken at the level at which the economy actually works, can play a vital part in improving the life chances of people in those places yet to fully recover from the de-industrialisation of the 1970s. This should help to drive more investment, job creation and wage growth in the future.

There can be no doubt that the turmoil currently engulfing British politics means that delivering city-region devolution will be more challenging than ever. Some who previously supported the Government’s devolution agenda are now calling for a radical re-think – either to change the nature of devolution, or to make it even more ambitious.

Of course conversations about the future of devolution should continue. But allowing the progress made to date on devolution to be paused or worse, scrapped altogether – even if the ambition is to go further in pushing power down – would be a huge mistake. Given the political uncertainties and constraints on political capital and capacity that we face, the best bet of securing real change in the future is for the deals currently on the table to be consolidated and delivered as planned, and for the important work of establishing new, democratically accountable institutions at the city region level to continue.

Periods of crisis demand calm leadership. Now is not the time to go back to the drawing board on devolution, but for those at the national and the local level to renew their determination to drive power down from Whitehall in the years ahead.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities. This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog.


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.