This BBC archive newsclip shows the North London Line in 1981 – when bad people wanted to turn it into a road

Broad Street in 1983. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikipedia.

The BBC Archive is a selection of social media accounts that do exactly what the name suggests: post video and audio clips from decades past, most of which serve mainly to enable us to marvel at the accents of yesteryear.

It did once have a website, but ironically, it’s been archived:

Anyway. Over the weekend, one of its old tweets caught my eye thanks to our occasional rail correspondent John Band. The tweet dates from July 2016, and the news clip it features from 1981. But it paints a vision of a dystopian future so horrifying, that I felt it was worth bringing to your attention, simply to show what a close shave we had. Honestly, it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Back in 1981, reporter Bill Kerr-Elliot (amazing accent) tells us, the North London Line was “so underused that you can often have a carriage to yourself”. Unlike latter incarnations of the largely orbital route, it ran into Central London, terminating at the late lamented Broad Street station.

Broad Street station is no longer with us: it closed in 1986, and was demolished, to be replaced by the Broadgate Office complex. Already by 1981, though, it was, Kerr Elliot tells us, a place of “Victorian splendour, now sadly down at heel”, before adding, in a marvellously portentous voice that you just don’t get in news reports any more, “No one quite remembers when the station master left.”


A blurry screenshot from the BBC film clip. Image: BBC.

At the time, it looked like the line it served (just 95p for a return to Richmond!) might be able to go the same way. The news clip features an interview with Andrew Warren of roads lobbying group “Movement for London” demanding the powers that be tear up the tracks and build a new road, on the grounds that everyone loves cars (no) and people would definitely use it (well, yes).

Another interviewee had a rather different vision for the line. David Thomas, chair of the North London Line Action Committee, we are told:

“has called on British rail to incorporate the line into a complete ring route around London, to operate more closely with London Transport, to advertise service more aggressively and to smarten up the stations”.

This, in the end, is exactly what happened. Okay, the line had to be diverted to Stratford and North Woolwich, and rebranded as “Silverlink” for a few depressing years. But in 2007, it was transferred to the new privately-operated but TfL-owned London Overground network.

The Overground in 2010, shortly before the North London Line Action Committee vision was realised. 

The new owners gave the line a deep clean, raised the profile of the system by advertising it as “London’s new trainset” and, over the next few years, hooked it up to the East, South and West London Lines to create a new loop around London. TfL, in other words, did literally everything that the North London Line Action Committee had asked for, even if it took 30 years.

So: the road lobby lost, for once. Which is nice. God, though, imagine if they hadn’t.

If you fancy watching the full clip, and seeing just how miserable London looked – and just how fruity BBC reporters sounded – in 1981, then you can do so here:


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:

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.