Britain’s cities face a choice: imperfect devolution today, or no devolution at all for a decade

Another inspiring image of George Osborne talking about the north. Image: Getty.

The devolution agenda, like every policy, has its share of critics within politics, the policy world and academia. Yet there is a growing danger that we hold devolution to a higher standard than almost any other area of policy.

Given the institutional resistance that remains within central government to devolution, soon all of those engaged in the agenda must make a choice: secure imperfect change now with a view to building on it in the years ahead, or be complicit in locking in the status quo for at least another decade.

Not even the biggest devolution enthusiast, or Conservative party supporter, would argue that the government’s approach in this area has been perfect. Every deal should be open to scrutiny and, if appropriate, amendment. Critical analysis and constructive opposition within the policy development process is vital.

Yet when one reviews the most common reasons cited for stopping the devolution deals in their tracks, it is far from clear that they represent reasonable grounds to oppose or hold back change.

For example, some have called for the government’s devolution programme to be less “top down” and more structured. There is clearly a significant inconsistency here. Applying structure to a process necessitates imposing boundaries and rules on what can and can’t be done, and when it can and can’t be done by. Is it reasonable to criticise the government for being too “top down” in specifying the governance model and timetable for devolution, and not structured enough, by putting the emphasis on places coming forward with their own proposals for how, given these restrictions, devolution could work for them?

After all, the fact remains that in a state as centralised as the UK, where power is virtually entirely concentrated within Whitehall, there is no wholly “bottom-up” way of moving that power down to a local level, outside of an armed insurrection: the nature of devolution will be determined by those who possess that power in the first instance.

And when it comes to applying more structure to the process, variations in economic and political geography, as well as institutional knowledge and capacity across the country, mean that devolution will inherently mean different things to different areas, and will progress at different speeds.

Equally, many continue to argue that, in order to be valid, devolution doesn’t only need to encourage greater levels of public and civic participation: it should itself actually be initiated and shaped by a more engaged citizenry. Clearly more can and should be done to encourage local people to consider how their place can make the most of devo deals in the months ahead.

But a lack of public engagement or understanding hardly marks devolution out against the rest of public policy, including in areas like crime, health and welfare that impact people’s daily lives far more regularly. Ultimately, British politics as a whole suffers from a lack of voter engagement between elections. Devolution will be a means through which to improve that – but is it really reasonable to oppose devolution deals going ahead because they display symptoms of a malaise that spreads much wider?

The truth is, there will never be a perfect way of delivering devolution – it is necessarily messy, and like all things involving political power, motives will be questioned, interests defended, and winners and losers proclaimed. Similarly, there is no way of knowing for sure what the journey towards a more devolved system will look like in practice, or even what the ultimate destination will look like. That is the nature of big reforms in a complex and ever changing world, and is as true for devolution as it is in the health service, education or defence.

And all of this matters – because there is nothing inevitable about devolution in the UK. It remains a battleground between a powerful majority who, either for philosophical, political or institutional reasons wish to keep things as they are, versus a relatively small number of advocates who want to see change because they believe it will bring benefits to communities across the country.

We are now reaching a point where a judgement must be made. In order to secure devolution, are we willing to accept imperfect change that takes us closer to where we want to get to and allows us to go further in the years ahead? Or will we be complicit in ensuring the UK remains the most centralised country in the developed world?

Ben Harrison is director of communications & development 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.