Britain’s mayors have real power. So why does nobody take them seriously?

Has this man ruined mayors for all of us? Image: Getty.

Does the UK’s national media care about London? Do its politicians?

That may seem an odd question, given the London-centricity of both entities. But what’s truly odd is how much they ignore the person ostensibly in charge of the city: the mayor of London.

Commentators in the UK are currently scrambling over each other to tell us how awful Boris Johnson, the present incumbent, is. They point out the personal indiscretions, the lies, the lack of preparedness and commitment, the vacuum where policy and strategy should be. They tell us he is vain, incompetent, ambitious for power but not to then do anything with it.

Having watched Boris Johnson in City Hall for several years, I have to agree. But here’s the thing: none of this is new information. Almost all of it could have been said when he first ran for the mayoralty in 2008. Apparently it’s only important now that Johnson is jockeying for position in the race to become Conservative leader and then prime minister. When he was mayor of London? Nah, it was fine that he’s a lazy incompetent.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan is one of the candidates vying to replace Johnson as mayor in May. One of his main policy pledges is that he’ll freeze fares for four years – but how, exactly, is still unclear. Khan says he’ll “wage war on waste and inefficiency”, cancel vanity projects, and create new revenue streams (which will take several years to come into effect).

But what’s missing are figures. The current frontrunner to have control of an £11bn budget is putting forward an incredibly vague plan for how he would run London’s transport network.

Can you imagine a national politician getting away with that at a general election? Can you imagine any party’s policy unit letting a minister or shadow minister onto Newsnight without hard numbers? But it’s London, so it doesn’t matter. Hardly anyone in the media is scrutinising things anyway.

Except it does matter. The mayor of London has significant control over transport, policing and housing in the capital, not to mention planning, culture, the environment and more. The person in charge should be smart, creative and energetic. The role should be attracting the brightest and the best.

Instead, for the last eight years the Conservatives have palmed the city off with a man they now say they always knew wasn’t really up to the job. The two main candidates this year are Khan, who still carries the suspicion he’s only running because Labour didn’t win the general election so he didn’t get a ministerial job; and his Tory rival Zac Goldsmith, who had to be badgered into it.

Given the disdain and general lack of interest from Westminster politicians and hacks for what happens with London’s local government, you’d be forgiven for thinking mayoralties have been written off as a dismal experiment. London can keep its anomaly, but otherwise we can forget the concept.

But it’s not so. Several major cities – Liverpool and Bristol among them – have had mayors for years. And the residents of most of England’s big metropolitan areas – the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Sheffield, Tees Valley and the North East, among them – may shortly be coming to terms with their very own “metro mayors”. (This, oddly, will leave both Bristol and Liverpool with two mayors apiece.) So will several rural areas (East Anglia, Lincolnshire).

Maybe voters will show the same reverence as the people of Hartlepool, who memorably elected the town’s football club mascot – a monkey – in 2002. (Stuart Drummond, the man behind H’Angus the monkey, held the office until 2013, when it was abolished following a public vote.)

Perhaps that’s the appropriate response. If politics isn’t willing to put its big hitters into mayoralties – to stop regarding them as a stop-off on the way to other things, or a place to shunt off irritants – then voters are hardly going to be enthused.

London’s had a mayor for 16 years and people still aren’t sure what the office is for – or even who it is (someone asked me the other day if it was Tessa Jowell). Running a city is a serious job; it’s time for serious candidates and serious thinking.

Rachel Holdsworth is senior editor at Londonist and tweets as @rmholdsworth.


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.