Is Crossrail for the North really the biggest priority for the north?

Those were the days: Stephenson’s Rocket. Image: Rischgitz/Getty.

For the last few years, one of the big ideas in the world of urbanism has been ‘agglomeration’: the theory that, when it comes to city economics, bigger is better. In a 2011 speech, the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West unveiled research showing that, the bigger the city, the higher its growth rate, and the faster it produced all sorts of helpful things like patents. (Also unhelpful things like crime, but who’s counting?)

All this presented Britain with a problem. London aside, none of its cities are that big in global terms. (The urban areas of Birmingham and Manchester just about sneak into the top 200.) 

So in 2014, Britain’s coalition government came up with a plan. Between them, the urban areas of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds have a population approaching that of London. By improving transport links within and between those cities, so the theory ran, they would be able to act like a single urban area, rather like Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr or the Netherlands’ Randstad – two other multipolar urban regions which are, pleasingly, rich. Finally, the north would be able to act as an economic counterweight to London and the south east. And all we had to do to make it happen was to build a new trans-Pennine train line that we probably should have built years ago anyway.

A lot of people loved this idea, for fairly obvious reasons. It meant a big new investment in transport in the north, rather than in London. The benefits would be shared by a number of cities, making it much easier to build support for the idea. Bored transport journalists would tweet out crowd-sourced maps of potential routes.

And yesterday, at a transport summit in Leeds, the region’s political and business leaders called on the government to honour its promise to build Crossrail for the North/HS3/the Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed new rail link which has been blessed with rather more names than funding commitments.

On the whole, then, it’s distressing to learn that, just possibly, we’ve all been wasting our time.

Paul Swinney is the chief economist at the Centre for Cities, and an occasional contributor to CityMetric. (Full disclosure: the Centre has sponsored us since 2015.) He’s a northerner himself – a good Sunderland lad – and a man who spends a lot of time thinking about how to rebalance the British economy.

And yesterday, he tweeted out a pretty convincing argument that the cross-north link is really not the biggest priority. It’s worth reading the entire thread – but here are the key points.

1. London’s situation is unique in Britain

Both wages and house prices in London are high. As a result, people will commute from very long distances to get to jobs in the capital, and making it easier to do that will produce a big economic benefit.

That logic doesn’t apply in most of the northern cities, where housing is affordable, and wages are lower, however. That means it’s more possible to live in the city, and less attractive to commute from elsewhere to get there.

2. Northern commuters aren’t going from city to city

People do commute into Manchester, of course: but they’re more likely to come in from the rural areas to the north or south, rather than the other cities to east or west.

After all, if you want to live the urban lifestyle while working in Manchester, you might as well just live in Manchester.

3. Transport isn’t the big problem

I’m not going to lie to you, this one breaks my heart. But the numbers suggest we’ve all been stariing at the wrong problem:

The data gets even more depressing when you look at the picture internationally.

4. ...so Crossrail for the North is a distraction

Finally, the government only has so much bandwidth (even more so, in the age of Brexit). The time and energy that goes into a big project like a new railway line is time and energy that isn’t spent fixing the region’s other problems.

Or to put it another way: perhaps my whole life I’ve been living a lie.


Paul’s prescription is that cities need devolution (so, in practice, mayors), so that they can tackle the skills gap and sort out transport problems within, rather than between, cities. It’s not the agglomeration theory is wrong, exactly: but weak transport networks mean that a city of 1m people will punch below its weight, simply because it can’t connect people with jobs.

In fairness, Jim O’Neill’s Cities Growth Commission, which kicked off much of this debate back in 2014, made many of the same points. HS3, or whatever we’re calling it in this paragraph, was never meant to be a panacea, but part of a much bigger package of investment in both transport and skills.

So how did the debate come to focus on this one grand projet? I suspect the answer is jam-spreading. Pouring money into a tram network for Leeds, say, would get backs up unless it was accompanied by similar investments elsewhere.

A new trans-pennine rail link, though, would seem to benefit a lot more people: that makes it easier to sell. It feels significant that Newcastle – a very long way from the four other big northern cities – ended up folded into the Northern Powerhouse scheme, simply because it was too awkward to exclude it.

None of which is to say that HS3 (I’m sticking with that name) is a bad idea: the existing trans-pennine links are shocking, and it’s pretty gross that transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped plans to invest in rail in the north in literally the same week he called for another £30bn railway line for London. But if money is scarce, there may be better things we can do with it.

You can read more on this subject in “Building the Northern Powerhouse”, a report Paul Swinney produced for the Centre for Cities in 2016.

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.