Yorkshire might finally be getting a devolution deal. But what’s taken so long?

At least it's pretty. Image: Getty.

Back in December 2014, when Boris Johnson was still running London and metro mayors were little more than a glint in George Osborne’s eye, the government announced its second city devolution deal.

The lucky recipient was the Sheffield City Region: the former South Yorkshire metropolitan county, plus some chunks of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The deal was hailed as a new start by then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who – purely coincidentally – happened to be MP for Sheffield Hallam.

At the time, my main question was what had happened to the other city region carved out of the West Riding. Clegg had promised that Leeds, like Sheffield, would have a deal before Christmas. No such deal ever appeared.

And, in the months that followed, the Sheffield deal, which Clegg had unveiled with such fanfare, slid off the agenda too. Last May, six English regions elected mayors for the first time. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that none of them were in Yorkshire – the Tees Valley region straddles the ancient boundary between England’s largest county and county Durham, to its north.

But that region is more associated with the North East these days. And what is true is that Yorkshire was by and large left behind by the devolution revolution. The metropolitan areas of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol all got deals, powers and mayors. Leeds and Sheffield got nothing.

That might – might – be changing. From the York Press:

County leaders met in York last week, and have today announced a “coalition of the willing” is now working towards “a single ambitious devolution deal”.

York leaders were at the meeting, as well as those from North Yorkshire and all its seven districts, the East Riding, Leeds, Hull, Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

In a joint statement the leaders said: “Today is Yorkshire Day and therefore it seems right to talk today about our county, its ambitions and our identity.”

That’s not quite all of Yorkshire. Sheffield and Rotherham are apparently still looking at a separate deal; plus, of course, a few slivers of the old county are now in the Tees Valley or Greater Manchester regions. But it’s most of it. Here’s a map.

The pale area is the new Yorkshire; the red area Sheffield and Doncaster. Wakefield, Simon Jeffrey of the Centre for Cities points out, has yet to sign up to the Yorkshire-wide bid. Image: Wikimedia/CityMetric.

Have a look at what you could have won

It’s worth asking, though, why this hasn’t happened before. Other regions stuffed with mutually antagonistic councils, not naming any Liverpool City Regions in particular, managed to pull it together to get devolution deals.

And Yorkshire was hardly short of proposals. When the government’s September 2015 deadline for devolution bids arrived, no fewer than four Yorkshire proposals were on the table. They were:

  • The Sheffield City Region deal (as described above)
  • The Leeds City Region deal (the five boroughs of West Yorkshire, plus four from North Yorkshire: York, Selby, Harrogate and Craven);
  • The confusingly named YNYER bid, which brought together York, North Yorkshire (in which the City of York unitary authority is an island) and the East Riding;
  • “Greater Yorkshire” (North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, the East Riding, Hull and York).

The City of Hull helpfully made clear that its preference was to be part of the Greater Yorkshire deal, but if that failed it would happily bunk up with the Leeds City Region. In the end, it didn’t need to make any such choice, though, because none of those deals came off. Leeds remains the largest metropolitan area in England without any form of devolution.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong with the Sheffield City Region is easy to explain: Derbyshire took it to court.

The deal, after all, would have given the new mayor powers over services in the Derbyshire borough of Chesterfield. In January, the high court ruled that if South Yorkshire wanted to start annexing bits of neighbouring counties it would need to do a lot more consultation than it had already done. Result: no deal, no mayoral election, no mayor.

By that point, according to the Guardian’s northern editor Helen Pidd,

“Momentum [was] building behind calls for the SCR proposal to be scrapped in favour of a whole-Yorkshire deal. With more than 5 million residents, the four counties of Yorkshire have a bigger population than Scotland and a GDP double that of Wales.”

That implied a sort of greater Greater Yorkshire deal. (Greater Yorkshire, despite its name, had not previously included South Yorkshire, or the Tees Valley, or Saddleworth, come to that, making it a sort of lesser Yorkshire, if we’re honest with ourselves.)

As for Leeds City Region, the problem there seemed to lie well outside the metropolitan area in rural North Yorkshire. The Leeds deal, after all, was expected to cover not just the old metropolitan West Yorkshire, but also York, Craven, Selby and Harrogate. That would cut the population of the rump of North Yorkshire by over 60 per cent – which, no doubt, would have a knock on effect on its budget, powers and so on.

How the Leeds City Region could have carved up Yorkshire. Image: Wikimedia/CityMetric.

North Yorkshire council was understandably not very keen on this – and Tory councillors in the Leeds City Region were not nuts about the fact they’d likely be signing up to a mayoral election which Labour seemed very likely to win.

The result was multiple competing bids on different geographies – and no deal.

Whether this might finally be about to change remains to be seen. Yesterday’s statement of intent does feel like a step forward – but Sheffield and Rotherham are still trying to go their own way. More to the point, with George Osborne out of office, and Brexit dominating everything, it’s not entirely clear that the government have either the bandwidth or the enthusiasm to do any further deals at all.

Still. Even if Yorkshire doesn’t get a devolution deal, or any of the money or power that goes with it, it does at least have its own day to tell itself how brilliant it is. And isn’t that the important thing, really?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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.