“Cities like ours are the reason we voted to leave the EU – and the ones who stand to lose or gain most from Brexit”

Demonstrators outside Parliament protesting the activation of Article 50 today. Image: Getty.

The triggering of Article 50 marks a new and important chapter in our history. We are forging a new relationship with our largest trade partner and untangling four decades of legislation. We also have the task of repairing the tattered fabric of our United Kingdom and healing the sharp divisions in our society.

This task carries particular weight for me. Key Cities, the group of which I’m the chair, represents 26 diverse cities from across the country, with 8.6m people between them; but unlike in most other cities, the clear majority of our residents voted to leave the European Union.

As city leaders, it is our duty to follow their will – whatever our personal politics. It is also our duty to do what we can to protect our communities from economic shock, and to do everything we can to prevent our residents from feeling left behind.

To achieve this, and to heal our divided country, Theresa May needs to take an inclusive approach to negotiation. The devolved administrations, London, and the Core Cities all have a contribution to make. Indeed, local government overall should be included in Brexit negotiations – but specifically cities like ours need their own voice. That is not to ask for a seat at the table in negotiations, but instead a role in scrutinising their outcome.

Cities like ours, plainly speaking, are the reason we voted to leave the EU.  Our communities are the ones who stand to lose or gain the most from Brexit – we have both the potential to seize new opportunities and achieve rapid growth, and the potential to suffer if our great industries, our exporters, and our universities get a raw deal.

We ask the government to recognise that our constituents put their faith in leaving the EU on good terms for Britain, and that Westminster and Whitehall have an obligation to listen to their voices as we embark on this extraordinary project.


We believe that the Prime Minister can take some clear steps now, ahead of negotiations, to ensure a more stable outcome for Britain.

First, the Government should commit to a transitional period after 2019 to allow some more time to negotiate a new trading relationship with the EU. If we rush our exit, our economy, our jobs, and our communities will suffer. If we rush our exit, it could mean our great ports grind to a halt, and queues miles long form at Dover. If we can take time, we can minimise any disruption and adapt more efficiently to new trading arrangements.

Taking time means the Sunderland car factories, the aerospace workers of Preston, and the ports of the south coast can continue their work unimpeded. It’s our view that no deal is the worst option for Britain, so we would urge the government to take the time to get this right, stay at the table, and deliver the best deal for our country.

Second, the government should move to guarantee European structural funds that might be lost as we leave the EU. Crucially, these should be devolved directly to city leaders to avoid replicating the bureaucracy that hindered funds being used efficiently. That will give cities both financial stability and the means to pursue innovation and new opportunity.

Beyond these two steps, the government should make investment in skills its first priority as we move toward Brexit. As so many business and city leaders have said, the skills gap is what is really holding our country back. A successful economy requires excellent education, ranging from primary schools and secondary schools, to technical schools and colleges, and universities – all these institutions deserve guarantees on their funding at this critical time. Brexit of course will be a time consuming process, but we should all keep the real problem, of which Brexit is one major consequence, in mind.

Article 50 is a watershed moment for the country and for our cities. We heard their voices last June, and they should be heard in Brussels when the government sits down at the negotiating table.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities. 

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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.