So long, Mr Ferguson – why Bristol should say goodbye to its first mayor next Thursday

Bristol: good luck finding anywhere to park. Image: Getty.

It takes concerted effort as a city’s first mayor to provoke discussion about removing the office before the end of your inaugural term, amirite? Yet that’s exactly what happened during George Ferguson’s first stint as Bristol mayor.

Despite voting for a city mayor in 2012,Bristolian politicians and people were openly discussing holding another referendum – this time to remove the mayoral office – just three years later.

Granted, no one has openly blamed Ferguson for the change in opinion – but, in all honesty, this would not have been on the cards had things gone better in the first place.

If Ferguson is to be remembered for any two things, it will be these: red trousers (which says it all), and an ill-conceived rollout of residents’ parking zones (RPZs). 

The RPZ scheme in Bristol has been disastrous from the get go. Public transport in the city is poor, and has been for years. While improvements to buses have been recorded since Ferguson took office, for a city of more than 400,000 people, Bristol’s buses are still notoriously bad. One in five arrives late; many services run more than 10 minutes apart; Sunday services run half-hourly, or even more infrequently.

As a result of the buses, many people are forced to drive. Yet RPZs have been rolled out in Bristol’s central districts, many of which are wealthy, without thought or consideration for the people who commute to these areas. Thousands of NHS workers are employed at the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) and other surrounding hospitals, yet can no longer park within walking distance to work. 

Public opposition to the RPZs has been vocal: one group drove a tank through the city centre to protest an RPZ being implemented in the city’s affluent Clifton area. Yet this opposition has largely been ignored. Ferguson himself has fluctuated between admitting that things are going wrong and pledging to reassess the schemes, and then deciding that he has most of the city on side. Other protests – the vandalism of parking machines; a petition signed by 4,000 people labelling the RPZ scheme “disastrous” – suggest otherwise.

Although an undeniably well intentioned attempt to curb car use in Bristol, Ferguson has pushed through a vanity project, without properly considering the impact on the vast majority of Bristolians. And the fact that many of the RPZs have been implemented in places that include the jobs and more desirable housing has restricted parking in more affluent areas, contributing to what some critics have labelled gentrification across the city as

Bristol is congested: the city has previously recorded emissions levels of twice the EU limit. But forcing people out of their cars before providing them with effective public transport is utterly ridiculous. Encouraging residents to use public transport means providing a system that is regular, efficient and more affordable. Bullying them on to public transport is simply not right. 

And it’s not just drivers complaining about the parking schemes. Shop owners in RPZ areas have blamed the schemes for loss of income and business closures. Nor are RPZs Ferguson’s only transport “reform”. A similarly detested citywide enforcement of 20 mile-per-hour speed limits – seen as the second front of Ferguson’s war on drivers – has been met with derision, not least because the man himself was fined for speeding.

Ferguson says his life has consisted of a number of projects, of which being mayor of Bristol is just one. But public office should not be considered a side project, even if it is limited to a maximum of two terms. The arrogance to suggest that a city can be a plaything is breathtaking. For that reason alone, this mayor has to go.


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.