The election result shows the two emerging faces of urban England

So, that went well. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities on the election result.

Though social care, security, and fox hunting were all the big issues of the day, Britain’s cities were a key battleground in the election – yet no party managed to triumph. For both parties, urban voters are still in reach, and how the parties develop policy towards cities over the next period will be critical for the next election.

The first change we noticed is that Labour’s vote surged, seeing an urban swing of 6 per cent compared to 4 per cent nationally. But in individual cities, swings were swung in both directions. Labour’s advance was concentrated in London and the outh, while the Conservatives made gains in cities in the North, the Midlands, and also in Scotland. Leaving aside Scotland, this reflects the emergence of two different urban economies – one open, dynamic, and increasingly Labour, and another that is struggling, frustrated with a lack of order, and increasingly Conservative.

At the last election in 2015, the Conservatives won the majority of the vote in just under half of all English cities, with Labour taking just over half. All Scottish cities were won by the SNP – reflecting opinion in much of the country. But last week the urban map started to change as more English cities voted for Labour, leaving the Conservatives with a majority of the vote in five fewer cities than in 2015.

But interestingly, while more cities particularly in the South have swung towards Labour, the Conservatives gained votes in the North and Midlands.

Cities in the North of England saw a 4 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour; those in the South saw a swing of 10 per cent to Labour. Labour actually saw swings against it in some of its urban heartlands, including Stoke, Middlesbrough, and Sheffield. This resulted in Labour’s one loss of the night – Mansfield, on a 17 per cent swing away from Labour to the Conservatives.

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The characteristics of these cities may offer some explanation as to why this election saw a swing toward the Conservatives. Many voted to Leave the European Union, and may be seen as the ‘left behind’ places. While both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn focused on an inclusive rhetoric – for the many not the few; a country that works for everyone – the harder stance on Brexit proposed by the Conservatives, with a promise for restoring jobs from it, may have helped turn the dial towards the right.

That is in contrast to the more prosperous, urban south where a big issue is affordability, specifically in housing. In this election Labour have shown they are not just the party of urban Britain – but a specific kind of urban Britain, increasingly southern, middle class, and potentially relatively highly skilled.

There are exceptions of course – for instance, Basildon swung to the Tories, and York to Labour – but even these outliers prove the broader rule. Labour is making gains in the cities that are successfully responding to economic and social change with more openness, while the Conservatives are advancing in the cities that are seeking a more orderly relationship with these developments.

The picture in Scotland is different with the four cities swinging to the Conservatives rather than to Labour, mostly at the expense of the SNP. This saw the Conservatives achieve a majority of the vote in Aberdeen, part of a return for the party to their historic heartlands in the Borders and North East Scotland, as well as gains in Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. In these three cities though, it is Labour who are in second place to the SNP, and who have seen its vote share stabilise and recover slightly from 2015. Each of the Welsh cities swung to Labour, who picked up support from every party, though again, the cosmopolitan Cardiff saw a much larger Labour swing than the more traditional cities of Swansea and Newport.

Overall, the results in cities reflect the results in Parliament – a stalemate. Yet the swings have shown emergent patterns reflecting two halves of urban England – larger or at least growing cities, or ex-industrial cities where growth is stagnant and skills are low. However policymaking pans out over the next parliament, both of the main parties will need to recognise that there is a distinct split around the country, and politics reflects economics.

All cities need to see parties committing to growing their economies and supporting people into skilled work, and they need to see their place supported when the costs of growth become too high. For the Conservatives, that’s bringing back their traditional middle class supporters by improving housing affordability. For Labour, appreciating how and where local economic gains will be made might stop them losing the urban North altogether.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first 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.