“It’s time to put local back at the heart of government”

Liverpool town hall. Image: Getty.

This is a crucial moment in the history of governance in the UK. In the wake of economic upheaval throughout most of the last decade, as well as the seismic impact of Brexit, political life in Britain is struggling to keep pace with events.

There are long-term challenges, too: changes in the relationship between citizens and the state; in technology and the ways we interact and communicate with one another; and in the expectations we have of institutions and leaders.

Something has to give.

With central government capacity stretched to breaking point and a lack of wherewithal in Westminster to deal with the impact of these changes, or to navigate them in local areas, a radical shift in governance is essential. Local government needs to have a bigger role in shaping the country’s future, with more power to make decisions and lead in local communities.

There is a deficit of trust in public institutions and the elites who run them: the banking crash of 2008, the MPs’ expenses scandal and a period of extended austerity in public services have all contributed to a loss of confidence that was thrown into stark relief by the EU referendum and its aftermath.

Empowering the cities and regions of England remains one of the most important issues for government to address and it needs to do it now. Yet the offer to local government so far has been limited. It has stopped short of signaling the radical changes in power and governance that are necessary.

In order to investigate this situation more fully, LGiU convened a high level network of six leaders, six chief executives and seven senior officers from councils across the country, as well as senior academics from four universities and practitioners from organisations across the public sector.

One clear message emerged: at this point of crisis, there needs to be a radical realignment of the relationship between central and local government. Brexit has perhaps made this change less likely, but it has also made it more essential. While councils have been forging ahead with innovative new ways of leading and delivering for places, central government has been preoccupied with other matters, many of which are remote from the real concerns of local communities.

That’s why we make the following recommendations:

A mayors’ sSenate: A mayors’ senate should be established, giving directly elected metro mayors this role.

In the first instance the Senate should cover the constitutional settlement surrounding Brexit, but it should also expand to cover public finances, infrastructure, service reform and government policy more generally.

This would be a first step towards representation of the English regions at the national level and ideally there would a wider pool of leaders involved in future.

A systematic review of public finance, led by local government: The crisis in funding for local government has been growing for some years, and the fall of the Finance Bill has placed a large question mark over the future of council funding.

A systematic review of local government funding should be set up immediately, and led by the very council leaders with the experience, knowledge and expertise which is lacking in Whitehall.

A new constitutional settlement: Without formal rules governing the relationship between central and local government, it is entirely reliant on trust and goodwill. But trust and goodwill is often severely lacking in the centre-local relationship.

Either that needs to be reversed, which seems unlikely in the near future, or we need a constitutional settlement to provide a framework and consistency over the roles and responsibilities of central and local government and a secure footing on which to build the future of local governance.

Devolution relaunch: The genie is out the bottle when it comes to devolution. The combined authorities have shown that building regional representation does not necessitate creating a new layer of bureaucracy.

This should be a programme of empowered regional governance and leadership to facilitate better democratic representation and greater local influence at the centre.

We have become used to a state of affairs in which roles and responsibilities are delegated from a distant and largely uninterested central government. This story has been in the making for a while – but now it is time to turn the tables and put local back at the heart of government.

Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of LGiU, the Local Government Information Unit. You can read the Beyond Devolution report here.


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.