On housing, Theresa May promised a revolution, then delivered a damp squib. Again

Theresa May handed a P45 by terrible comedian Simon Brodkin. Image: Getty.

As I write these words, Prime Minister Theresa May is still giving her speech to the Tory conference. The section on housing just finished – I’ve yet to even see the text written down. If journalism is the first draft of history, these are the scribbled notes on scraps of paper that may or may not make it into that draft. 

Nonetheless, some first thoughts.

1) They massively over-stated how radical this would be

Last night the Sun reported that May would be “the first PM in decades to unveil a major programme to build council houses” – a statement based, one assumes, on briefings by May’s team.

The rhetoric leading up to the meaty policy part of the speech seemed to back up the suggestion that something radical was on the way. “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem,” May told us.

What we actually got was an extra £2bn for affordable housing. At first glance, that looks like a significant bump – it takes the total budget to £9bn, so amounts to an increase of more than 28 per cent. Wow!

Except, in 2010, George Osborne cut the annual capital funding for housing associations from £3bn to £450m. This new money isn’t even enough to make up for that cut.

It’s also not clear if this £2bn is an annual contribution, or a one-off – which obviously makes quite a big difference.

At any rate: they’ve oversold this. By a lot.

2) Affordable housing still isn’t the real priority

Something else about that £2bn figure: it’s a lot less than the extra £10bn May promised for Help to Buy. This, she claimed, would help another 130,000 families gather the deposits they need to buy their own homes.

But it’s unclear, to say the least, that this sort of government support has actually increased building rates. As the housing charity Shelter has put it

“although the scheme genuinely helped some people on middling incomes buy bigger new builds in nicer areas sooner, over half of those using the scheme didn’t really need it. This implies that a large chunk of Help to Buy Equity sales could at best be a waste of public money and at worst, an inflationary boost to house prices.”

That’s a big enough screw-up it’s worth restating it: it’s possible that throwing more money at the housing market through Help To Buy actually inflated prices, making it harder to buy.

And Theresa May has just promised it another £10bn – five times as much as her much-trailed pledge to get councils building again.

We should probably hold the champagne for the moment.

3) Councils are still constrained

There was another change promised in the speech, of course: “We will encourage council as well as housing associations to bid for this money.” That will make it easier for councils to build, so should be viewed as significant.

What would have been much more significant, though, is letting councils borrow to invest. That would likely have had much bigger impact on housing supply than allowing them to beg for a sliver of Treasury largesse.

Once again, Theresa May has promised revolution, but all she’s delivered has been small, technical changes.

4) Seriously, these numbers are tiny

Oh, and while I’ve been writing, the FT’s Jim Pickard tweeted this:

Experts believe we need to be building about 250,000 extra homes a year to keep up with demand. We’ve not made it within 100,000 of that in a decade.

If Pickard’s figures are right, this “revolution” will deal with less than 5 per cent of the problem.

Honestly, this is nothing. Why on earth did they decide to brief this would be a revolution?

4) There is some good news

For one thing, May promised that some of the money would go to “social rent” homes in areas of higher need. That’s a shift from the last few years where such funding has focused on “affordable rent” – which, since it can be 80 per cent of market rent, has often been anything but affordable.

And some of the noises coming from the housing sector are positive, too. Here’s Shelter’s head of policy, Kate Webb:

While David Orr, of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, says:

“The additional £2bn will make a real difference to those let down by a broken housing market.”

So yes. These are steps in the right direction.

5) Seriously though – Is that it?

All over the Tory conference this week, I heard Tories worrying that the housing market would destroy their standing with the under 40s. They are all too aware of the problem.

And yet this is their solution: another 5,000 homes a year, and shouting a bit at developers in the hope they’ll change their ways. That’s all they’ve got.

There will be a lot of snarky commentary about the problems with Theresa May’s speech: the P45 handed to her by a comedian as a stunt, the lengthy coughing fits, the fact the sign behind her literally started disintegrating as she spoke.

But none of those are the reason that she’s doomed. The real problem is the mismatch between rhetoric and policy. Once again, she’s promised a revolution and then bottled it.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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: 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.