“Different cities are different”: so how does the housing crisis look in different city regions?

Well, it's a start. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

One of the big problems in urban policy making is working out how well things are going already.

Normally the easiest way to measure your performance is to compare it to that of your peers. With cities, though, that’s easier said than done: for reasons I’ve explained at tedious length before, there are so many different ways of defining a city, and things are done so differently in different jurisdictions, that just getting to a point where you can reasonable compare two sets of figures is a massive job.

In Britain we compound this problem by fiddling around with local authority boundaries every 20 minutes or so.

At first glance, the six new city regions, which elected their first metro mayors last week, look pretty familiar: a lot like mostly metropolitan counties so venerable that they date all the way back to 1974.

Actually, though, only three of them (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) actually match those boundaries. The other three are very slightly different. The Liverpool City Region is Merseyside plus Halton; Tees Valley is Cleveland plus Darlington; West of England is Avon minus North Somerset.

That’s not hugely different – we’re still talking about the same sort of place. But it is different enough to make finding comparative figures on these places a pain in the bum.

Lucky, then, that those heroes at the Centre for Cities have ridden to the rescue yet again. The new city regions differ from the “primary urban areas” that the Centre normally uses in its datatools. But to get round that, they’ve put together new “data dashboards” looking at some of the data on each of the new city regions.

Over the next few weeks we’re going to trawl through those to build up a picture of the new city regions. But to give you a flavour, I thought I’d compare some of the data on an issue very close to my heart.

Each of the images below show two charts about a city region’s housing market. The top one is the housing affordability ratio – that is, the relationship between the average house price and the average salary. The latter is the growth in the region’s housing stock (with 2001 figures as a baseline). On each graph, the green  line is the city region and the grey one the national average.

Here’s the West Midlands:

Since 2006, housing affordability has improved very slightly, even though the region has increased its housing stock more slowly than the national average. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction: the number of dwe;lings tells us about the area’s supply of housing, but without figures for change in the local population we don’t know anything about demand.

Here’s the same figures for Greater Manchester:

There, the affordability ratio is quite a lot lower than the national average. The rate of house building has recently been a little sluggish, however.

Next door in the Liverpool City Region...

...there are two striking things going on in these graphs. One is that housing affordability has fallen, quite significantly, from 6.9 times average earnings in 2006 to 6.1 a decade later. The other is that the city region’s housing stock has grown incredibly slowly: climbing by just 8 per cent in 16 years

One more for luck: here’s Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

This one’s complicated by the fact it’s at least two different cities, plus an assortment of small towns and rural areas: it isn’t a single economic region, and so not a single housing market, in the way the first three were. So while Cambridge has some of the least affordable housing in Britain, much of the rest of the region doesn’t fit that pattern.

That perhaps explains how it is that housing in Cambridgeshire is in fact slightly more affordable than the national average – and how it is that a city one associates with a housing crisis could exist in a city-region where the housing stock has grown quite so rapidly.

I’m going to stop there because this is quite confusing enough as it is. But two conclusions jump out at me.

 One is that – this is upsetting to me – you can build more homes and still see affordability deteriorate. Whether that’s because demand is growing (more people, or at least more households; the two are not quite the same thing) or because of other, financial factors is not something we can determine from this data. But nonetheless: there’s no simple correlation between more homes and more affordable housing.

The other conclusion from this data is that the different city regions are, well, different. The policies that are needed to improve the housing market in one nay not work so well with another.

Which seems to me like a very good argument for the sort of devolution these new mayor represent.

Anyway. For the next few weeks I’ll be looking at the data dashboards for each individual city region in more detail – to try and work out what’s in the new mayors’ inboxes.

You can explore the new data tool yourself here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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.