An independent London is a fantasy – but special status could protect the city's global position

A pro-EU balloon flies next to the statue of Churchill during last Saturday's march for Europe. Image: Getty.

The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union leaves London in a peculiar position. London is Europe’s – if not the world’s – pre-eminent global city and financial centre. And this is in no small part because it makes its living off its connections to both Europe and the wider world. Consequently, the reality of Brexit is likely to be particularly acute and consequential for London’s economy and workforce, over and above the rest of the UK.

Given that almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to remain in the EU, it’s perhaps not surprising that the familiar question of whether London should become an autonomous city-state has resurfaced. The idea was first proposed back in the 1990s, and resurfaced most recently during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

Now, Brexit has highlighted stark contrasts in voting preference across the UK. Remain achieved a majority in London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, while Leave won more votes in England and Wales.

These divides have resurrected the issue of Scottish independence, with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon putting the prospect of another referendum back on the table. And now, it appears this move has inspired more than 120,000 Londoners to petition the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, to take London out of the UK and re-enter the EU.

International city

On one level, the idea makes sense: ever since the 1970s, London has become ever more detached from the rest of Britain; in the UK, but increasingly not of the UK. It is not simply that the UK has become more London-centric. Rather, London has become a metropolis that belongs to the world. The city has gradually separated from its national territory, and increasingly operated as another country whose role, status and success is determined by its relation with the world, rather than with the rest of the UK.

Throughout several decades of globalisation, the UK has been pooling its sovereignty, or losing control, over many issues that were traditionally its sole reserve. International agreements and policies for more open access, the liberalisation of international trade in goods and services, reduced state control through privatisation, decreasing regulation and bureaucracy and more open migration has meant that the UK has reconfigured or lost many of its previously exclusive powers.

With the formation of the European Union, international institutions –- such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund –- and international regulatory bodies, London is no longer just the capital of the UK; it stands alongside New York as the world’s most important global city and international financial centre: one of the twin capitals of the global economy.

Londependence day

There are three main points typically used to argue that London should go it alone. For one thing, London’s economic dominance over the rest of the UK is highlighted, to argue that London effectively subsidises the rest of the UK with little benefit to itself. Taxes levied on London exceed what is returned in government spending, providing a net subsidy to the rest of the UK worth about a fifth of its GDP.

What’s more, London’s economic, political, cultural and demographic differences to the rest of the UK were further widened by the city’s greater resilience in weathering the 2008 global financial crisis. By emphasising London’s unique global role, campaigners seek to present it as alien to the UK: another country, which is more cosmopolitan and global; an economic success story with well-paid jobs, sky-high property values and rapid growth.

Finally, it is argued that London is a problem for the UK as a whole. The argument goes that the rest of the UK is hamstrung by the success of a London, which takes away its resources, talent, people and investment. It is suggested that letting London go could allow what remains of the UK to build an economy that is more geographically and economically balanced; not hyper-focused on the south-east and financial and commercial services.

The idea that London will become an independent city-state, a kind of “Singapore in Europe”, is improbable, to say the least. Unlike many other European cities, London has no history of political independence – even having an elected mayor is a relatively recent phenomenon. As it stands, there is no established precedent, and therefore no mechanism, no jurisdiction, no authority and no will to take such a bold step.

But perhaps the notion of a London that is somehow still within the EU single market is not a complete political impossibility. The brutal fact is that the interests of London do not necessarily coincide with those of the rest of the UK – and our politicians need to recognise that.

So, the aftershocks of Brexit could lead to London being granted some kind of special autonomy within the UK. There’s no doubt that London would welcome the devolved powers, policies and taxations that it needs to protect and enhance its position as a premier global city and the leading financial centre on the European and global stage.

One thing is for sure, London’s voice – through City Hall – needs to be heard in the negotiations that will now take place, over the nature of the UK’s divorce from Europe.The Conversation

Richard G Smith, is associate professor of geography at Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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.