Five reflections on the metro mayor manifestos

Some other manifestos. Image: Getty.

In the weeks before the metro mayor elections, the Centre for Cities  pulled together manifestos from the major candidates in all six city regions. Our goal was to examine what they are saying, how their policies address the different economic challenges of each place, and what patterns or messages emerge when considered as a whole.

Here are five observations on the trends and issues emerging from the manifestos across all these places:

Not everyone has bothered to write a manifesto

Metro mayors will be the most visible politician in their area overnight, with mandates many times larger than MPs in their city regions and a significant profile on the national stage. But despite the size of the role and the powers at their disposal, a worrying number of candidates have not set out what voters can expect them to do with those powers if elected.

For example, only two Conservative candidates have published manifestos – Andy Street, who was in a titanic battle in the West Midlands with his Labour opponent Sion Simon, and Sean Anstee who has had a long run-up to his contest with Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Elsewhere, candidates have only set out short lists of policy priorities or very general aspirations without clear and measurable targets or dates have been made to do.

Manifestos can be a hindrance to politicians once in office (see the national insurance U-turn from this year’s budget for the most recent example) and are largely unnoticed by the voting public. But if they are also an indication of the level of thought and preparation candidates have put into their vision for their city region, then this is not an encouraging start.

Mayoral hopefuls are showing ambition in going beyond the formal powers in their devolution deals

A number of candidates are already demonstrating a willingness to look beyond the powers set out in the devolution documents, which will be important if they are to take bold and decisive action if elected.

In the West Midlands, Sion Simon would nationalise the M6 toll, arguing that, while it’s not within his formal powers, central government could not refuse a policy set out explicitly in his manifesto and voted for by local residents. Andy Burnham has also vowed to set up a Greater Manchester Schools Commissioner to drive up standards in schools.

These candidates can be said to be following the precedent set by London’s mayors – with Ken Livingstone, for example, having successfully implemented the congestion charge without having been designated any authority to do so in the Greater London Authority Act.

Candidates are also showing a welcome recognition of the informal but crucial role the mayors will play as ambassador, cheerleader and negotiator-in-chief for their city region. Judging by the manifestos, Government ministers should prepare themselves for plenty of lobbying on HS3 and education from northern mayors, pilot schemes for Universal Basic Income in the West Midlands, and reforms to school league tables in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

But there is still a strong emphasis on skills, transport and housing in the manifestos that have been published – regardless of candidates’ political affiliations

While some policies and aspirations tread on territory that will be fiercely defended by constituent councils and national government, in the main the manifestos have engaged with the three big economic policy areas that mayors will have the greatest authority over: skills, transport and housing/planning.

While there are clear differences in the proposals set out by leading candidates in each city region, they also share significant overlaps. In particular, there aren’t clear party-political distinctions between, for example, the Labour or Conservative candidates in each place, in their approaches to the big policy challenges in each place – echoing Ed Glaeser’s observation from the US that there doesn’t seem to be a left or right wing way to take out the trash.

Tough decisions are still being dodged

Taking decisions at the city region level should reduce some of the NIMBYism and parochialism that can thwart large-scale plans with widespread benefits. Unfortunately, however, like Sadiq Khan’s promise to protect the greenbelt (and thereby limit the already constrained space to address the capital’s housing shortages), many mayoral candidates are so far prioritising short-term political gains over long-term benefits to their city region.

In Greater Manchester, for example, Andy Burnham and Jane Brophy have promised to scrap the hard work done by local leaders on the city region’s spatial framework, which has attracted some opposition locally because of its plans to develop green belt land.

And in the West of England, candidates have committed to build more homes, but have not said where this housing would be built – which could lead to three more years of inadequate action on this problem.

Evaluation should be at the heart of all the candidates’ policy plans

One of the biggest opportunities of the mayoral agenda is the chance it will offer for greater evidence-based policy experimentation and innovation. But without a clear programme of evaluation built into policy plans from the outset (and followed through whatever difficult implications they may bring), those potential benefits will be lost.

This issue was recognised in the Greater Manchester devolution deal, which has evaluation at its centre. However, none of the mayoral candidates in other places have indicated that they would embrace this aspect of policy-making.

This might seem like a wonkish concern, but failing to evaluate properly could result in money being wasted and citizens being ill-serviced by bad policies. It will also mean that mayors and other decision-makers cannot learn from the successes and failures of different cities when addressing their own challenges.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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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:

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.