Is the new “Greater Paris” authority too weak to get things done?

A stock image of Paris, the city which this story is about. Image: Getty.

Reorganising the Paris area has been a top priority for the French government for more than 10 years. It recently launched two major interventions to create a more coordinated and cohesive city-region around the capital.

The first is the announcement that it was developing an extra 200 km of underground lines throughout the region. The second is the creation of Grand Paris, a new institution that roughly corresponds to an English combined authority.

The new Paris compared to the old London. Click to expand.

Grand Paris covers an area of 7m inhabitants and accounts for 21 per cent of France’s GDP (by comparison, the Greater London Authority has a population of 8.5m inhabitants and accounts for 22 per cent of UK GDP). Grand Paris will have responsibilities over urban planning, housing, economic development, and the environment. Although it was created in January, responsibilities will be incrementally devolved between now and 2020.

The comparison continued. Click to expand.

The creation of Grand Paris is a recognition that an integrated authority is much needed and long overdue for the Paris urban area. Paris itself is significantly under-bounded, which means that the urban area extends well beyond its political border. The current Paris government (itself made up of 20 smaller arrondissements) has a population of 2m and is roughly equal to London zones 1 and 2 in size.

But unlike the Greater London Authority, in Paris there has to date been no formal coordination across the wider city-region, resulting in social and political tensions between the city and its suburbs – for example, regarding housing.

Whilst Grand Paris represents an improvement on the current state of urban governance, the project (which was first initiated in 2008) has faced considerable opposition from local politicians, and is a relatively weak institution.

First of all, Grand Paris has to fit within an already heavily fragmented local government structure in France. The area covered by Grand Paris has 131 municipalities, newly gathered into 12 “territories”, each belonging to four départements. And all of this – including Grand Paris itself – belongs to the larger Ile-de-France region.

This administrative millefeuille, a culinary metaphor the French like to use to refer to the multiple (and many argue redundant) layers of local government, considerably affects Grand Paris’ ability to act, as many of its responsibilities will be shared between authorities.

For instance, although Grand Paris holds economic development powers, including urban regeneration and the development of commercial and industrial zones, it is specifically required to take account of the priorities of the Ile-de-France region, which controls important economic development responsibilities such as support to businesses. And while Grand Paris has a wide range of responsibilities relating to housing, including financial support to house building, planning permissions are still granted by individual municipalities.

The budget is also limited. Grand Paris has a budget of €3.7bn, but most of the money will actually be redistributed to municipalities, leaving Grand Paris with only €65m to directly invest. In comparison the Paris government has a budget of about €8bn, and the Ile-de-France region has €5bn.

And although this budget will incrementally increase over time alongside the acquisition of new responsibilities, even after 2020 Grand Paris will remain strongly reliant on government grants. Its only other source of revenue is a local business tax – even though, in France, equivalent metropolitan structures can usually raise a set of property and business taxes.

Finally, Grand Paris will find it difficult to provide strong leadership of the area. It is led by a metropolitan council, composed of 209 municipal councillors (that is, councillors from the 131 individual municipalities) who will elect a president. But it will be hard for the President to act as a political leader given the large number of discontented local politicians, who have their own (arguably greater) democratic legitimacy through the ballot box.

It has taken eight years to set up an institution that many local councillors feared would hamper their powers. Addressing these fears has meant adopting a very consensual approach which has ultimately resulted in the creation of a relatively weak institution.

Overcoming these issues will be critical to avoid Grand Paris becoming another superfluous layer in the French millefeuille.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities.

This article was originally posted on the think tank's blog.


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.