Election 2017: What are the parties offering Britain’s cities?

New Statesman political editor George Eaton worries about the whereabouts of Theresa May. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities on what’s in the manifestos.

As we approach the general election, most parties have now set out their manifestos, and while the ultimate goal of the main candidates is similar – promoting a more inclusive and equal country – their strategies to achieve it are different.

On the one hand, the Labour manifesto positions itself as “For the many not for the few” by reducing inequality. On the other, the Conservatives want to move “Forward, Together”, pushing for policies that promote growth up and down the country.

But what does this mean for cities? With the polls indicating a two horse race, we analyse mainly what Labour and the Conservatives have pledged on five key issues for city economies.


Click to expand.

Only two years after the 2015 general election (where devolution featured heavily), and a few weeks after the election of the first metro-mayor in six English city regions, it is striking to see how little devolution features in the manifestos.

While in coalition, the Conservatives paved the way for devolving powers to cities with City and Local Growth Deals and, during the short two year parliament, saw the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act through to Royal Assent – which led to the election of six powerful new metro mayors. In 2017, the Conservatives want to see more metro mayors elected, and have identified Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and local and combined authorities as bodies that will help deliver their industrial strategy at the local level.

In contrast, the Labour Party limits its commitment to further devolution to those local authorities that have “an appetite for it”. Although pledging to introduce a “presumption of devolution” by which powers transferred back from Brussels won’t stop in Westminster but will go at the level that is more appropriate for them, the language used is very much around regions, rather than local or combined authorities. Furthermore, their plan to set up a National Health Care and a National Education Service clearly shows that their focus is national rather than local.

Unsurprisingly, we would argue that committing to devolution for the long term is essential in particular for the biggest English cities, including London. Whether or not it features in a manifesto, responding to the London Finance Commission, and addressing the challenges around local government finance must feature over the next parliament.

Industrial strategy

Click to expand.

Whether to focus on a sector-based industrial strategy or a place-based one seems to be the main dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives.

The Labour Party’s plan for the industrial strategy represents a traditional sector-oriented approach, although their creation of Regional Development Banks is likely to help support local businesses and promote a regional strategy.

The Conservatives however have pledged to deliver a national industrial strategy consisting of many local industrial strategies, co-ordinated by LEPs and local and combined authorities which will have the responsibility of delivering a plan relevant to their local needs. And, in an attempt to promote growth across England, they have also pledged to move civil servants and cultural institutions away from London and the South East.

Our recent work has shown that, for it to be successful, industrial strategy will need to focus on cities not sectors. The risk of pushing a handful of industries is that not only does it ignore other parts of the economy, but it can’t support growth of industries that don’t yet exist. Instead, by focussing on places, the industrial strategy can improve the attractiveness of these places for business investment, increasing their ability to attract new industries as they are formed.


Click to expand.

Closely related to the industrial strategy, Labour in particular have committed to vast infrastructure improvements.

Labour set out specific plans for transport: from the completion of HS2 and of the Science Vale transport arc between Oxford and Cambridge, to the promotion of a high speed line connecting northern cities (Crossrail for the North) and a new Brighton Main Line for the South East.

Labour will also create a National Investment Bank to co-ordinate the Regional Development Banks and will invest £250bn in a National Transformation Fund used to upgrade transport, housing, energy systems, communications and scientific research.

By contrast, the Conservatives pledge a high speed route connecting northern cities (Northern Powerhouse Rail) and confirm a continued commitment to both HS2 and Heathrow Airport Expansion. They also recommit to a National Productivity Investment Fund that will take total spending on infrastructure, research and development, and housing to £170bn during the next parliament. They have also pledged to open new branches of the British Business Bank in cities across the country.

Large infrastructure projects are always going to be eye-catching. Our work shows that while improving the connection between Leeds and Manchester in particular will be important, bigger gains are likely to be had from improving transport within cities rather than between them.


Click to expand.

Once again, all parties promise to build more homes. Both Labour and Conservatives want to build at least a million houses by the end of the next parliament, with Labour setting aside half a million of those to be affordable.

While we would agree that more houses need to be built, they must be built in the places where we need them the most. As shown in our General Election 2017 briefing, the UK as a whole does not have a housing crisis, but the Greater South East certainly does.

Yet, parties fail to capture this spatial picture. And with their pledge of building more houses “not just in the South East2’, the Conservatives are at risk of missing the point. As we showed in 2014, by pledging to protect the Green Belt, all parties give up an opportunity to build more homes where we actually need them.


Click to expand.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have bold plans for skills development and life-long learning. An efficient education system which endows people with the right skills relevant to business needs is essential for a successful industrial strategy, so the focus on improving technical education is a welcomed pledge present in both manifestos.

The Conservatives put education at the heart of their plan to make the United Kingdom a “Great Meritocracy”, stressing the importance of reducing differences among places, improving social mobility and focusing on technical and STEM subjects. They will deliver on these points by introducing new institutes of technology and specialist maths schools in every major city, establishing a UCAS-style portal for technical education and continuing their commitment of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020, with a focus on driving up their quality.

By contrast, Labour wants to promote life-long learning and guarantee access to education to everyone. They will do so by creating a National Education Service, scrapping university fees for everyone, offering free education in Further Education colleges and doubling the number of Level 3 apprenticeships by 2022.

Higher skills lead to stronger economic growth and productivity, so for both parties to focus on education from school onwards is welcome. This is particularly an issue in northern cities, and addressing this challenge will be key if politicians want to see a greater number of people across the country benefit from growth.

Forward for the many

May’s seemingly toned-down approach to devolution, and Labour’s talk of regions and national policies, moves us away from the “race to the top” on devolution that we had in the last general election. Our work shows that if policy is to improve standards of living across the country, then it needs to identify and tackle the reasons why some places struggle to attract business investment.

No manifesto deals sufficiently with this – and whoever wins will need answers to this problem if they are to succeed in bringing greater prosperity across the country.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally 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: 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.