What can the new French Metropoles teach us about English metro mayors?

France's new metropolitan regions. Image courtesy of the government of France.

Although heralded as a major step towards devolution, question marks remain over whether the UK’s new metro mayors, positioned between urban local authorities and national government, will have the power to bring about change and get things done. It’s therefore useful to look across the Channel to France, where there has been a similar trend towards giving responsibilities to “supra-local” entities.

Metropoles have authority over urban areas and across municipal boundaries. They've seen their powers gradually increase over time to include things like social care, housing and other public services. Although the majority of UK mayoral combined authorities will initially have a more limited remit, focused explicitly on economic development, they will exist in a similarly fragmented political system as the French metropoles.

So how are English metro mayors likely to stack up against their French counterparts when it comes to fulfilling their brief?

The biggest constraint likely to face England’s new metro mayors is a lack of fiscal power. Looking at an entity’s financial autonomy is usually a good indicator of how much power it has and how much it can actually do independently.

In France, metropoles have relatively substantial fiscal autonomy – although specific budgets vary, in general about half of their revenues come from local taxation. This gives metropoles an incentive to foster economic growth and attract firms and residents, as this can have a significant impact on their revenue base.

On this side of the Channel, most of the metro mayors’ funding will be made up of devolved streams and discrete pots, with the precise amounts and their calculations unclear. This could become an issue if funding streams are guaranteed regardless of the city region’s needs and whethermetro mayors delivered results. And the fine line between devolution and delegation from Whitehall is less clear when money is simply handed out.

However, although England’s metro mayors will have less financial autonomy, their role as a single, directly elected representative will give them a large mandate, which brings with it significant informal powers. In France, metropoles are typically governed by a large assembly of 100-150 councillors: that means bureaucracy, elongated decision-making and low overall accountability.

By contrast, English metro mayors will benefit from a higher profile and the fact that they are directly accountable for their actions across the city region. In other words, if they want to be re-elected, metro mayors will have to show evidence of what they have done for their city-region.

Metro mayors’ powers will be counterbalanced by a cabinet constituted of local authorities’ leaders. This type of structure – the leadership of directly accountable mayors, supported and scrutinised by other local leaders – has the potential to offer a more streamlined, goal-driven type of governance when compared to the French Metropoles.

There is however a risk that local leaders could seek to block the decision-making process if they don’t see direct benefits for their authority. Part of the challenge facing metro mayors will be to balance the various interests across their city-regions.

For now, the success of metro mayors will depend on their ability to capitalise on their mandate and visibility to become a leading and influential voice in local politics. But in the future, giving metro mayors more control over local taxation – as the French metropoles do – will ensure they have both the ability to take strategic decisions and the financial incentives needed to drive change across their city.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.


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.