Is the West Midlands about to steal the initiative on devolution?

Not gonna lie, we're starting to run out of stock images of the West Midlands. Image: Getty.

Every ministerial speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference was peppered with praise for Andy Street – the party’s new candidate to be mayor of the West Midlands in 2017. It now appears a second devolution deal for the area is close to being agreed, this time focusing on allowing the region to retain more of the tax generated locally to reinvest in housing and infrastructure.

Although details of this latest proposed deal remain sketchy, and there has been no official confirmation from central government, any deal that marked a progression in the financial freedoms available to local areas would be hugely significant.

Despite the devolution deals agreed to date, the UK remains overwhelmingly centralised, with UK cities having limited say in the big decisions that shape their future. The level of taxes controlled locally or regionally in the UK is roughly 10 times less than in Canada, seven times less than in Sweden, and nearly six times less than in Germany.

But potentially just as significant is that it is the West Midlands which is now being touted as the area likely to receive fiscal devolution – as opposed to Greater Manchester, which has to date led the way with the most expansive and ambitious devolution deal of all those agreed.

The prime minister has been at pains to differentiate her approach to economic development outside of London from that of her predecessors, and to emphasise that the Northern Powerhouse – while important – is not the be all and end all for her government. And if the aim is to demonstrate this broader focus, there are a number of good reasons for the government to shift its focus to the West Midlands.

For starters, the area itself is large, with significant economic potential. The West Midlands Combined Authority comprises 12 authorities (including non-constituent members), is home to roughly 4m people, and boasts an £80bn a year economy. Having struggled for decades to shake off its post-industrial hangover, Birmingham city centre saw private sector jobs growth of 17 per cent between 1998 and 2011, and is now home to 40 per cent of the UK’s national conference trade, as well as Europe’s second largest insurance market.

In addition, unlike those mayoral races in Manchester and Liverpool, the Conservatives could feasibly win in the West Midlands in 2017. Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the region was less than ten points at the 2015 General Election, and in the year since, this gap could have narrowed even before local campaigning begins.

The politics of England's city regions. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

In the spiritual home of the Labour “right”, the region’s traditional Labour voters may be turned off by its more recent leftward shift and the second leadership success of Jeremy Corbyn in the last twelve months. Furthermore, turnout will almost certainly be lower in May 2017 than in the general election. If, as usual, younger people (who are more likely to vote Labour) do not turn out, but older people (who largely lean to the Conservatives) do, that could help to tighten the race between the two leading parties and give Andy Street a real chance of victory.

A Conservative mayor of the West Midlands may also shift the political dynamic of devolution. Much of the Northern Powerhouse agenda and devolution to Greater Manchester was shaped by the close relationship and trust shared between Manchester City Council CEO Sir Howard Bernstein and George Osborne. But with the former retiring and the latter now on the backbenches, it is conceivable that, should he win, the future of the devolution agenda could instead be shaped by Andy Street’s relationship with Phillip Hammond and Theresa May.

Of course, we shouldn’t get carried away. The political leaders of the West Midlands have come a long way in a very short space of time in order to reach common agreement on a devolution deal and establish the West Midlands Combined Authority. But in terms of the strength and longevity of local institutions and the powers currently included in their deal, Greater Manchester remains the leading light of UK city devolution.

Yet there are signs that this could change in the months and years ahead. Should the West Midlands secure an ambitious second devolution deal which includes new fiscal powers, and should the Conservatives triumph in the region in 2017, then Greater Manchester may find it is no longer alone in the vanguard of UK city devolution.

Such increased competition would be good news for those keen to see devolution remain at the top of the political agenda – and if it leads to greater economic control being transferred to Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and other big city-regions, then it would be good news for the national economy too.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was previously published.

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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:

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.