On 4 May 2017, the Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton & Wirral Combined Authority – or as it's more sensibly known, the Liverpool City Region - finally came of age. Its first mayor Steve Rotheram, elected with a predictable, 1st round landslide, now has the influence to shape and lead the future of roughly 1.5m people.
The previous century saw Liverpool reach its absolute highs and lows. The lows are often caricatured in a way similar to Sheffield or Hull, but Liverpool's decline is often misrepresented. It wasn't just industry that deserted the city, but its political and financial influence, consigning the city to its role as the poor relation of the major British cities.
Liverpool lost the only non-London based national bank, the two global giants of shipping, a thriving insurance sector, retail and pools giant Littlewoods, and it's nationally influential media group, Trinity, which bought the Mirror and subsequently moved south to a gleaming new Canary Wharf office. The roots of Unilever are as much the Wirral's as Rotterdam's, but that is far from reflected in the location of their 170,00 strong workforce.
The decline of the docks is well documented. But Liverpool was once also at the heart of the sectors that have shaped and defined the modern British economy; and it’s their desertion which has left a scar that the city has been struggling with for generations.
Liverpool is often out of the picture when in competition with Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. The city’s size is often underplayed. The ONS excludes the Wirral; Centre for Cities in its latest definition has pegged the city to just Liverpool and Knowsley local authorities. This is a fraction of its true sprawl, and paints a picture of a city that is smaller than Bristol – something which is quite clearly not the case.
All too often the city has also struggled to present a united front and project a political voice in London, as the neighbours down the East Lancs Road have. Greater Manchester is an undoubted success story; the globally connected airport, geographic location, years of partnership across the conurbation and growing media and political influence has helped it cement its position de-facto capital of the North.
This should offer the prospect of greater prosperity spreading across the north west, but the effects have yet to be felt. The Liverpool City Region’s GVA per head, while improving, remains far below the national average, as well below that of Manchester and Cheshire. It has also endured an acute impact from the austerity regime that George Osborne imposed while spearheading devolution. Liverpool City Council has been the 5th biggest victim of reductions in government spending, losing 58 per cent of its budget since 2010.
The man with the mandate
This is where the City Region and the election of Rotheram can offer a new hope. Yet, despite his huge mandate, his proposals have been rather conservative. He’s played it safe in focusing on traditional Labour issues to the most overwhelmingly Labour city (6 of the 8 safest Labour seats in the country are found in the region).
The Mann Island Building: home of the city region authorities. Image: El Pollock/creative commons.
Despite their historical role at the heart of Liverpool's government, the Conservatives have no hope of overturning a region where support for remaining in the EU was high and Corbynism and anti-austerity campaigns enjoy a seemingly healthy popularity, at odds with the direction rest of England is taking. The Liberal Democrats, once in power in Liverpool, Wirral and Sefton, have been decimated, as a price for aligning with the Tories in 2010. With this in-mind, it is unsurprising that turn-out was low – especially so in outlying areas like Southport, which have more tenuous links to the city proper.
The task for Rotheram on paper was to win, and to win handsomely; this he has achieved. He must now take this mandate and seek to unite a region that has far more in-common together in the face of the anticipated huge validation the rest of the country will offer Theresa May. A common political outlook can promote a healthy alternative politics and vision for the future that can be represented, and turned to policy within a Liverpolitian umbrella.
There must be strong signals that Liverpool is now a shared brand and one that is returning to its outward looking, ambitious traditions of achievement. There is much Rotheram can do to bring this vision to life, and in this case, symbolism counts. Hence the term “Liverpolitian”, a shared metropolitan Liverpudlian identity.
The powers that lie with Rotheram are not limited to what Westminster has already handed out. His role is to set an agenda of a modern major city that can seriously challenge for investment – to build an economy that will be more egalitarian at its foundation, using the helping hand of local government to accelerate priority areas of development. Part of his role will be to not only safeguard the powers he has now attained but to continue, aggressively, the case for further autonomy.
So, where can Rotheram begin to shape the region’s future?
The first challenge he faces is the organisation of the City Region itself. Rotheram should begin to open the road to a City Region Assembly to hold him to account while strengthening and securing the long term role of mayor and the concept of a shared Liverpolitan project.
He should launch a review of the out-dated border arrangements within the city region. This would put pressure on the government to allow Liverpool to absorb its suburbs in Huyton, Crosby, Halewood, Bootle and Kirkby, while offering Southport its long term ambition a return to West Lancashire, which should become an optional member. Halton and St Helens can inherit, rightly, the parts of Knowsley that naturally fit within their authorities.
The currently separate urban area of Birkenhead must be the biggest target for integration. Extending Liverpool City Centre to include Central Birkenhead would symbolically end the unfair separation between both banks of the river. The Mersey's east bank, with grand plans for Wirral Waters, should be become the new home of Liverpool City Region Police, set to leave their dour home at the centre of the Stand. A similarly renamed BBC local broadcasting service could also be ferried across the Mersey. There should also be space for Ellesmere Port, dubbed by the BBC Today programme recently as “near Merseyside” within an extended Wirral authority.
In the long term, the development of a bridge between Bromborough and Garston could unite the two suburban banks into a shared community, as proposed in the updated boundary commission review for Parliamentary seats. This would significantly reduce travel time between Wirral and Liverpool Airport, which is currently a nightmare for anyone with an early flight.
Putting Manchester in its place
The move towards regionalism, within the North West and the now ubiquitous Northern Powerhouse, must also be questioned. Liverpool's historical role was a city of transport and commerce serving industrial Lancashire, but also the West Midlands. This link still exists, as Liverpool welcomes students from this wide catchment area.
But it has long seen its ties with Birmingham and the Black Country decline. There is no direct train to Stoke-on-Trent, another city once dependent upon Liverpool's position to distribute its goods across the world.
Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram with his colleague and rival in Manchester, Andy Burnham. Image: Getty.
Liverpool must look again at its role in the Northern Powerhouse and question if the North is where it belongs. The city has been deprived of HS2, with links via Crewe being deemed acceptable for a population of 1.5m: Manchester has failed to stand by its neighbour. Through partnership with Birmingham, the historical ties could be re-built via a plan for a high speed line between the cities, challenging the dominance of Manchester. In return, Birmingham and the West Midlands could see a return to a stronger use of Liverpool's growing port, as the Midland's engine begins to realise its ambitions to reclaim the title of second city.
Liverpool was also once informally dubbed the capital of North Wales, and the influence of the Welsh is felt in Liverpool's hybrid accent. Birkenhead and Liverpool were once regular hosts of the National Eisteddfod of Wales and geography places the principality and the City Region on each other's doorstep. Associate membership for Flintshire and Wrexham could be offered, to bring Welsh citizens that rely on Liverpool as their major economic and cultural centre into the democratic process. In return, the Liverpool City Region could join Wales with representation in Cardiff.
Wales, with the strong implicit support of a major urban area could help amplify a joint-voice when negotiating with shared investment from Westminster. Current transport connections are out-dated: by exploring extension of the Merseyrail network, Liverpool and its airport can become a known internationally as the gateway to the majesty of Snowdonia and the Welsh coast.
The transport issue
Closer to home, Merseytravel remains some distance behind the majority of major European cities. While this is not uncommon to cities outside of London, there is much to do.
Bank Holiday Timetable: A normal weekday service will run on all lines tomorrow, with the exception of our additional peak time trains. pic.twitter.com/vLqVDCzNhy
— Merseyrail (@merseyrail) May 28, 2017
The Walrus project, an Oyster card equivalent, is slowly being introduced into Merseytravel’s area today, even though such cards are out-dated in the age of contactless. What’s more, there is still no uniformity on pricing, poor integration of the ticketing that covers the bus, train and ferry network, and poor integration between the bus routes and Merseyrail itself.
The wider development of the network, with a new station in the rapidly developing Baltic Quarter has been proposed and should be delivered, while an expansion into disused lines in North Liverpool would finally tie the economically deprived North Liverpool inner city, and the city’s football stadiums into the metro network. Announcing plans to examine a return of the outer loop across the suburbs, and a stronger integration of St Helens and Halton into the system via mapping and branding, would help portray a clearer vision for the network.
It’s the economy, stupid
The wider plan to revitalise the region should ultimately be focused on winning back commerce. A good starting point would be retaining the huge number of graduates attracted to study in the cities universities. There is no shortage of talent in Liverpool, but there certainly is a shortage of opportunity, which drives talent away.
Liverpool must begin to demonstrate to the rest of the country that it is not only a cultural offering of sport and nightlife, but also home to some of the most beautiful, leafy suburbs in the country at a fraction of the price of London. It is a city that includes a beach; a number of world famous golf courses and huge Victorian parks; a fast, reliable and growing transport network; a proud architectural heritage with more listed buildings than anywhere outside of London; a wide range of trendy, international restaurants with a growing airport that can be reached with little hassle.
With the new developments in riverside skyscrapers already underway, and the ambitious Liverpool Waters and new Everton stadium to come, Bootle could see a regeneration that can surpass that of Salford – but to do so, Liverpool must rebrand away from Beatles-city, stag do style tourism towards becoming a home for business.
The city already has a strong starting point in the life-science and creative & digital sectors. Advanced manufacturing has been seen as a priority, now employing 50,000 people, while the Superport developments offer the city a chance to recapture its purpose.
As the UK tackles the continual bind of low productivity, it should be at the heart of the medium term development agenda to drive a local economy that can answer the most pressing, but often ignored national economic issue. This will in-turn give Liverpool a stronger hand to argue for more autonomy to protect those less-well off in the region, of which they are sadly far too many.
These are issues that the Rotheram has to engage with, prioritise and share with the city region and beyond. Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool City Council, has been often criticised heavily inside the city – but he is due credit for recognising the right priorities and creating a shared agreement within the local authorities. This is something Leeds and Newcastle have so far been unable to do, and local leaders deserve praise for reaching this point.
It now passes to the former MP for Walton to set the vision and demonstrate that Liverpool under his leadership is ready for more powers. Devolving decision making over skills, connectivity, innovation and infrastructure from London or the new pan-northern bodies to Mann Island can drive more inclusive growth and demonstrate concrete reasons to believe in local devolution. It will be the return and flourishing of major industry and commerce that improves the economic prospects of some of the most deprived parts of the UK.
This new, united vision for the City Region, a Liverpolitian movement can allow the region to start reflecting on a path for the future – on in which it returns to a central position in the country’s economy and punches its weight as a leading major city. It's over to Rotheram to start that conversation. His mandate, and the dynamics he inherits, gives him the space to be bold.