Does the Conservative party have a plan for urban Britain?

Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid bothering a voter in Manchester. Image: Getty.

In the second half of his post conference round-up, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities looks at the Conservative party’s devolution policies.

Even before Theresa May’s ill-fated speech, this year’s Conservative Party conference had something of a funereal feel, especially in comparison to the freshers’ week atmosphere of Labour conference the previous week. Indeed, the prevailing mood in Manchester was one of lament – for the loss of MPs in the last election, but also for the lack of a clear vision on how to win back those voters it failed to engage with at the polls in June.

It’s clear from post-election analysis that the Conservatives lost ground in two key demographics in particular: young people, with around 60 per cent of 18-24 years old voting for Labour; and people living in major cities – with the Tories seeing their biggest vote decreases in London constituencies, and Labour consolidating its power in major cities across England and Wales.

And it’s equally clear that the Conservatives were explicitly trying to make themselves relevant to these groups this week by addressing some of the most pressing issues they face, from stagnant wages to unaffordable housing and student debt. That was reflected in the announcements on extending the help-to-buy scheme, building more social housing, and the changes to tuition fees. The government also attempted to fend off Jeremy Corbyn’s critique of capitalism by repeatedly making the case for free markets and free trade as the best way of generating prosperity for the greatest number of people.

Ultimately, however, the government failed to set out a policy platform that really gets to grip with the issues facing young and urban voters, or a compelling vision for the future of urban Britain.

Take its announcements on housing, for example. The most pressing challenge in cities like Bristol, Brighton and Cambridge (where house prices are more than ten times the average wage) is that nowhere near enough new homes are being built to meet demand. Pledging another £10bn for the ‘Help-to-Buy’ scheme will do nothing to address this fundamental problem in the housing market, and will actually increase demand for existing housing stock, especially in already very expensive cities.

Moreover, the announcement that the government will build 25,000 new social housing properties over the next five years is unlikely to have much traction with young and urban voters when Labour has already promised to build 100,000 affordable homes in its first term. If the Conservatives really want to prioritise young city-living buyers over older people who already own properties, then they should make more land available for housing on green belt sites, and introduce land value capture policies.

This is also true of the government’s announcement on tuition fees, which will see the income threshold at which point graduates repay student loans raised from £21,000 to £25,000. While it didn’t get much attention in the press, this is a significant policy change which the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests could save students around £15,700 on average. However, with Labour promising to scrap tuition fees entirely, it’s hard to see what political gains the Conservatives will get from these plans.

Furthermore, by focusing almost entirely on higher education, the Conservatives overlooked more important challenges in the education and skills sector, such as the need to significantly improve the Further Education (FE) system. In cities such as Birmingham, Bradford, Luton and Stoke more than 14 per cent of the adult population have no formal qualifications. The tuition fee debates are largely irrelevant for them, but how we support these individuals to access skills and education opportunities barely warranted a mention from politicians in Manchester.

Beyond specific policies, the Conservatives offered little indication of having a big vision for the future of urban Britain, or for how it would build on the city devolution agenda championed by the government in recent years. For example, it could have used the conference to go further than the Cameron/Osborne administration in devolving more powers to the English city regions – such as control over taxes, the capacity to set city specific minimum wages, or stronger powers over compulsory purchase orders to free up land for house-building.

But there was barely a single reference to devolution in speeches by Cabinet ministers throughout the week. In 1997, a new Labour Government demonstrated that it was possible to be both bold and authoritative by giving power away, which it did through offering devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by introducing London’s mayoralty. This is the kind of vision and boldness that the Conservatives need to develop and implement to make them relevant again to urban Britain at the next election.

Part of this approach to reconnecting to urban Britain means making the most of the new metro mayors (both Labour and Conservatives). True, the Conservative mayors were granted a slot in the main conference hall, in contrast to Labour’s approach to its mayors the previous week. But as discussions at the Centre for Cities’ fringe event with these mayors demonstrated, there is a disconnect between them and national government when it comes to tackling the issues facing the communities they represent.

For example, Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, criticised the Department for Education for failing to adequately engage with the mayors on FE policy – citing the delay in devolving the city region’s Adult Education budget to the mayor as one example.

Similarly, when I put it to Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor, that the Conservative (and Labour) Party face a big challenge in connecting with local communities in his area, he suggested that some of the intellectual debates which the party leadership had indulged in during conference meant little to the “person on the street”. Instead, he stressed the need for the party to highlight its record on delivering for people and places, and to show voters the difference it can make for them.

Only a few months ago, I suggested that the Conservatives had an opportunity to make unprecedented inroads into Labour’s electoral dominance of urban Britain. But they have failed to come up with the ideas and vision needed to grasp this opportunity – and risk squandering the progress being made by the new metro mayors and Conservative city leaders in delivering for urban communities. 

It’s never too late to address these issues, but the clock is ticking for the Conservatives to do so.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities. This article previously appeared on Local Government Chronicle.


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.