What are the big issues in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough mayoral race?

A generic stock pic of Cambridge. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities’ recent Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral hustings showed that the city region’s new mayor will face a unique challenge when they take office: namely, addressing the diverse issues that Cambridge and Peterborough face in growing their economies.

The discussion at the event highlighted that, when it comes to areas such as housing, transport and skills, very different policies will be needed to ensure that both places – and the rural areas between them – can thrive in the coming years

Cambridge is one of the least affordable cities in the UK when it comes to housing, and so it was no surprise that this was one of the key issues in the hustings. Labour candidate Kevin Price made great play of the fact that as Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council he’d been closely involved in negotiating the housing component of the city region’s devolution deal. In particular, he referred to the two deals the Combined Authority has done to boost affordable housing, including £100m for housing associations in the county beyond Cambridge.

Liberal Democrat candidate Rod Cantrill also focused on housing affordability, arguing that this discussion should not focus solely on houses for sale, with rental properties in high demand and just as unaffordable. He proposed a Local Living Rent set at no more than 33 per cent of the average local wage.

For independent candidate Peter Dawe, the key to addressing the city region’s housing needs is removing prohibitive planning restrictions and the intransigence of local councillors (including some of those sharing the platform with him). He proposed tearing up the planning system so that individual plots were put in the hands of potential buyers to expedite construction.

The need to get around planning restrictions was also highlighted by Conservative candidate James Palmer, who raised the example of the Community Land Trust in local villages Streatham and Wilburton, which enables local residents to neatly sidestep a planning system designed to protect the existing environment at the expense building new homes. However, to what extent this kind of initiative can be applied more widely is unclear.

Another big area of priority for Palmer in the debate was skills and education, which as our analysis shows is a particularly big issue in Peterborough. James Palmer argued for greater esteem and incentives for apprenticeships, and proposed that schools in the area should get league table points for getting young people into apprenticeships. He claimed that he could use his links to national government to make the city region a pilot area for the schools league table reform.

Peter Dawe echoed this idea by suggesting that schools had become factories for sending kids to university, in the process devaluing manual work. He recounted a recent conversation with civil engineers working on a local bypass who could not see the next generation coming through the ranks – put off by an education system biased against jobs in which your boots would get dirty.

A technology millionaire who made his fortune in the county, Dawe unsurprisingly saw technology as the solution to another of Cambridge’s big issues, traffic congestion. He proposed apps to facilitate greater use of taxis and buses in rural areas, and new single-seater pod-vehicles that would turn Cambridge City Centre’s roads into free-flowing four-line highways. In contrast, James Palmer promised to introduce a light rail for the county and an underground for city of Cambridge as one of his key election pledges

However, a cheaper way of reducing traffic and generating revenue to improve public transport across the city region would be to implement a congestion charge in Cambridge, as proposed in our recent briefing for the city region’s metro mayor.

James Palmer opposed this idea completely, in favour of digging tunnels and laying track. Kevin Price also rejected the idea outright, preferring greater investment in a Park and Ride facilities and a workplace-parking levy in the city centre, while Rod Cantrill seemed more open to the idea of a congestion charge without committing to it.

What the debate lacked, however, was a clear sense of the different needs of Peterborough and Cambridge when it comes to growing their economies. As has probably become clear, much of the discussion focused on issues which are particularly relevant to Cambridge, but less so in Peterborough – where neither housing shortages nor congestion are significant problems.

That is perhaps understandable given that the event was held in Cambridge. But whoever becomes metro mayor for the city region will have a mandate that stretches across these two separate and distinct urban areas, and the wide expanses of countryside, fenland and agricultural land that lie between them.

Setting out a policy platform which recognises the very different approaches needed in Cambridge and Peterborough, and which also offers a coherent narrative and vision for the whole city region, will be critical in making a success of the role.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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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.