Nobody seems to know what devolution would mean for their city. We need to explain it better

Sunderland's Keel Square – a symbol of the city's regeneration, and also of how difficult it is to illustrate devolution comment pieces. Image: TF92/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a good thing from time to time to be reminded that we aren’t all as famous as we think we are – or that what we care about isn’t all they’re talking about in the shops and down the pub.

Last month, the BBC published the results of a survey it had commissioned, showing that 44 per cent of people had never heard of the government’s “Northern Powerhouse”. Another 20 per cent of people, had heard of it, but knew nothing about it.

Just 6 per cent of people felt they knew a lot about it. If this is the level of public awareness about one of the signature devolution schemes of the government, then we have a long way to go to promote the idea of city devolution.

There is hope though. The survey also shows that more than 80 per cent of respondents in the north want local councils to have more control over transport and health. The public have an appetite for greater local leadership and accountability, but need to be convinced that the words that get thrown around this debate are the answer.

There is a familiar pattern with businesses. The Centre for Cities has also produced a survey of businesses, which also show a feeling of disengagement – but also one of optimism that devolution can work. Most small and medium size businesses feel they have not been consulted by local government leaders over devolution proposals. Even in Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham, where devolution proposals have had the highest profile, most businesses polled did not feel they had had the opportunity to make their voice heard on devolution.


Yet at the same time, a majority thought more local power over transport and planning would benefit them. There is also an opening to push the argument on fiscal devolution: 43 per cent of businesses thought more local power to vary taxes would help them, against 28 per cent who would prefer less local power. Businesses also said they would be most willing to pay more tax if they could see a specific need for extra investment in a local area.

That idea is the key – ordinary people and business leaders need to know specifically what we will do. They have to understand devolution because they are ultimately the coalition of support who will sustain the case we are making to the national government. Just as people know that the bins and the roads are the council, they have to know exactly what the new powers would mean – the buses would join the bins and the roads on the list of things the council controls.

Businesses need to be actively involved in discussions around what sort of infrastructure investments, tax incentives, and skills programmes would best support a healthy economic environment. In Sunderland, close cooperation between the council and industry has been a major boost to our city, and to good job prospects for young people here. That sort of relationship creates a baseline of trust which is essential. Companies are open to fiscal devolution – if they can be reassured that it means clear, visible investment, rather than vague discussion.

In a way, the two issues of public interest and business engagement go together – they want to see local accountability in exchange for local powers. They have given a very cautious welcome to the argument for local powers, but we also have to start bringing that argument into our everyday work on behalf of our constituents – so they know what we can do, what we will do, and that we will answer for what we do. That is the way forward for devolution.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities.

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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.