Madrid vs Barcelona: the two cities at the heart of Europe’s biggest crisis

Young people wearing the Catalan and Spanish flags.Image: Getty.

Who’s that at the door? Chances are it's your neighbour's kids dressed as Dracula threatening to put your windows out. While you pay them off, though, it’s also the perfect moment to wish them a happy World Cities Day.

That’s right – the United Nations has designated the 31 October as the city-ist day of the year. This year, it’s focusing on the theme of “Innovative Governance, Open Cities, to highlight the important role of urbanisation as a source of global development and social inclusion”.

Without wishing to be too facetious, though, has anyone at the UN read a newspaper recently? The aim of World Cities Day is noble, of course, but it will surely provoke hollow laughter in Madrid and Barcelona. At the time of writing the Spanish government is poised to impose direct rule on Catalan citizens. The situation is so fluid that the drama will have undoubtedly moved on by the time you read this.

The novelist and member of the European Cultural Parliament, Laura Freixas, was born in Barcelona and now lives in Madrid. She told me that, in her opinion, since the 1960s, Madrid has admired Barcelona and Barcelona has despised Madrid. “I think Catalan nationalists have convinced many Catalans that Spain equals Madrid equals Partido Popular.”

Freixas says she appreciates the anonymity of Madrid.

“Barcelona has a strong personality, which is wonderful – especially in aesthetic terms – but it is a little stifling too. In Barcelona I have always felt that society was divided between ‘us’  and ‘the others’.” ‘Us’ here refers to 400 bourgeois and Catalan families that dominate the city's social, political, intellectual life. The others are those who arrived later, are not rich, and are not 100 per cent Catalan.

“In Barcelona you are quickly probed - who is your family? What school did you go to? Where do you spend the summers? The answer pigeonholes you immediately, to everybody's relief,” Freixas explains. “In Madrid, by contrast, nobody asks, nobody cares, you are seen as a person, not so much as the representative of a fraction of a social class. Madrid is certainly much less beautiful than Barcelona, it has much less of a personality, but I feel by far more free here than in my home city.”

The Catalan-based broadcast journalist Carrie Frais believes Madrid and Barcelona are in a protracted crisis in which both Catalans and Spanish ‘nationals’ could potentially come out as losers.

“In the long run I do not foresee Catalonia becoming independent,” she says. “But my concern is that the region could emerge from the situation seriously weakened with less ability to negotiate restoring the status quo on their terms. Both Madrid and Catalonia have a lot to lose including their image, the reputation of democratic institutions and most worryingly their economies, which had been performing above and beyond expectations. It will be a long haul to get back to where they were just a month ago.”

The surreal speed at which events are moving was emphasised by Laura Roth, lecturer in the Department of Law at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She told me that she thinks Barcelona is winning the “legitimacy battle” and Madrid “the coercive one”.

She said: “Most of the things that are happening in the last few weeks were completely unthinkable a few months ago. As long as the international community doesn't intervene, it is most likely that force will be imposed.” The main difference between the two forces is that Madrid has shown it is unwilling to talk, while Catalonia has at least made a few attempts. “In this game of chicken there's one of them that's not willing to give up.

“My personal opinion,” she adds, “is that we're witnessing a transition from the nation-state to new forms of organisation around cities in a global world. But we still need states to function and in our case the European Union is reinforcing the old scheme.”


Robert Fishman, Conex-Marie Curie Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Carlos III University in Madrid said the ruling party in the Spanish capital prides itself on its unwillingness to yield. A referendum accepted by both Madrid and Barcelona would have been the quickest and surest way to resolve the crisis. But the adamant opposition of the Madrid government to this option made it impossible – even though opinion polling clearly showed that independence would have lost in a legally sanctioned vote.

Part of the problem, Fishman says, lies in the two cities’ vastly different economies. Infrastructure investment has focused on Madrid, with all the benefits that implies. Changes in the post-industrial economy have had a more positive economic impact in Madrid than in Barcelona, too: the latter’s economy relies more heavily on manufacturing than the capital, where most corporate HQs are based.

“However,” he adds, “there is a great deal of economic activity in Barcelona that centers on cultural creativity.  Young and creative people tend to be more drawn to Barcelona.”

And an independent Catalan state would “find it very difficult to go it alone.  International recognition and trade would be crucial – but as of now the conditions are not in place for an independent Catalonia to gain international recognition”. Moreover, in order for a new and independent Catalan state to be viable, numerous complex budgetary matters – involving public debt, pension payments and so forth – would have to be resolved in negotiations with Spain. “A negotiation process of that nature seems to be quite impossible.”

None of those I asked expected the crisis to be solved soon or satisfactorily – which is far more disturbing than the badly carved pumpkin in your window.

 
 
 
 

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.