Does the Labour party really have a plan for devolution to England’s cities?

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at conference. Image: Getty.

With conference season behind us, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities surveys the political landscape around devolution policy. First up: Labour.

This year’s Labour Party conference will be largely remembered primarily for the leadership’s successful bid to empower its membership – through the successful ‘McDonnell amendment’ (which means future leadership contestants can be nominated with the support of just 10 per cent of party MPs), and through the decision to give members a bigger platform in the conference itself.

It is ironic, however, that in these efforts to give a greater voice to grass-roots members and people outside the Westminster bubble, the party has side-lined its two most visible and important representatives outside London: Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool city region respectively. Indeed, Sadiq Khan, who as mayor of London is the most powerful labour politician in England and has the biggest personal mandate in British politics, was only granted an opportunity to address the conference last-minute, having campaigned for a slot for weeks.

This seems particularly odd given the rhetoric from the Labour leadership and shadow cabinet this conference season about its plans for devolution. For example, Jeremy Corbyn used a fringe event to reiterate his vision of spreading ‘municipal socialism’ across Britain, and vowed to end what he described as the government’s ‘piecemeal devolution’ by empowering local government. This echoed comments by Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary, who promised that in power Labour would oversee a “local government renaissance”, rowing back austerity and devolving more powers to places than the current government.

In truth however, this year’s conference – and the decision to snub the mayors in particular – highlighted the ambivalence of the Labour leadership when it comes to devolution, and the growing sense of a divide between the national party and local leadership.

For a start, beyond the rhetoric about going further than the Conservatives in handing down powers from the top, there was nothing at this year’s conference to suggest that the party has an ambitious plan or well-developed polices on how it would do that. Indeed, at the Centre for Cities fringe event on the future of urban leadership, Steve Rotheram admitted that the party’s policy on devolution is unclear, while Andy Burnham described it as “half-hearted”.

Moreover, all the key polices set out by Labour in this conference season, and in its general election manifesto earlier this year, reflect a top-down centralised approach to policy-making – from the proposal to abolish PFI contrasts, to plans to nationalise the railways and introduce national education and care services. Rather than offering a vision of empowering a local government renaissance, these policies suggest that a Corbyn government would primarily view local government as a platform to deliver its big national policy priorities.

This would be a mistake. While the national leadership has been emboldened by its showing in the last general election, it nonetheless has significant ground to make up if it is to have a chance of taking power at the national level. Indeed, while in the last election Labour consolidated its support in big cities across the North and Midlands, it also lost ground in some of its traditional strongholds – conceding the Stoke South seat to the Conservatives (having held it for 80 years), and also losing former safe seats of Mansfield and Middlesbrough South.

As such, Labour cannot afford to be complacent about its support across the North and Midlands. One obvious way to shore up that support – and to win back votes in these places – is to shout loudly about what the party can do for people and places when it has power, which is why Labour should be making the most of its mayors and local government leaders. Indeed, in cities across the UK (and towns, counties and districts), Labour is already in government. Collectively, Labour mayors and councillors represent around 31m people across England and Wales.

The metro mayors are the most visible manifestation of this, and less than five months into office are already having a big impact on the national and local political stage. This has been most evident in the campaign for more investment in Northern transport links spearheaded by Burnham and Rotheram in recent months. Without the intervention of the mayors, it’s hard to imagine this issue – which seems unlikely to fade anytime soon – having gained such national prominence.

Furthermore, if Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has in part been characterised by his promise of offering a “new way of doing politics”, this is exactly what the metro mayors offer – bringing decision-making away from Whitehall and much closer to the communities they represent. Similarly, if the vote for Brexit was characterised by the desire to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, the mayors are enabling people in places like Greater Manchester to take back control over issues such as housing, transport and education.

The Labour leadership should support this by countering the traditional ‘Whitehall knows best’ attitude which dominates British politics, and which represents a formidable obstacle to the mayors having an impact in their city regions. However, replacing one centralising government with another, even if it was a Labour government, would do nothing to readdress this problem.

In the coming years, we can expect the profile of the mayoralities to grow, and the impact they are having in their city regions to become more visible. Labour’s national leadership is missing a trick by failing to get squarely behind them.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.


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.