Here's why London gets so much of Britain's transport funding

It's all the fault of these fellas. Image: HBO.

“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance,” reads a particularly depressing verse of the Book of Matthew. “Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

So seems, at least, to be the case in transport policy. London, which by most standards has a pretty extensive public transport system, has been very successful in persuading the government it needs a bigger one. Other cities, which don't, often haven't. Is this just because the people who make the spending decisions have to take the tube?

Well, yes, that probably is a factor, if we're honest. But there's something else going on too. I suspect there might be maths at work here, too.

To explain, let's fire up our copy of Microsoft Excel and start modelling this baby. Imagine a country with three significant cities. Because I am a geek, we'll call them King's Landing, Winterfell and Lannisport.

To keep things simple, let's assume that, at the start of our experiment, all of them have economies worth one billion gold pieces; and, all else being equal, their economies grow by 1 per cent a year. So, ten years down the line, you get this:

Equality reigns. It’s all very predictable.

But in year 10, Ken Targaryen, the mayor of King’s Landing, somehow manages to find the money to build a metro line. (Doesn't matter how, he just does.) Public transport investment makes a city more prosperous – people can get to a wider range of jobs, that sort of thing – and also attracts more people to move to the city. So let's say that it boosts the city’s total growth rate by, say, 0.5 per cent.

Thanks to its wise investment strategy/stroke of good luck, King's Landing is now growing faster than the other cities. So, in year 20, the economic map looks like this:

King's Landing is now richer than the other cities – not by much, but it is.

So. The Westerosi national government (which is based in King's Landing, but that's just a coincidence) is now deciding where to make its next public transport investment. This, too, will improve the potential growth rate of any city by 0.5 per cent.

Now the fair thing to do would obviously be to send it to one of the provincial cities – let's say Winterfell – so that it has half a chance to catch up with King's Landing. If it does that, then two of the three cities would be growing at 1.5 per cent a year, and the third by just 1 per cent. A decade later the chart would look like this:

But the Westerosi Treasury is charged with making sure it gets maximum bang for its buck with every investment it makes. So, it decides to check what would happen if it instead invested the money in adding a line to the existing King's Landing transport network.

If it did that, the King's Landing economy would be growing at 2 per cent a year; the other two would be stuck stubbornly on just 1 per cent. Here's where we are ten years later:

Well, would you look at that? Turns out that building another line in King's Landing is better for the national growth rate than building an entirely new system in Winterfell. Only by 6m gold pieces – that barely buys you anything, these days – but it counts, nonetheless.

And so the Treasury, being the committed guardians of the public finances it is, goes with option B.

You're getting the point now, I'm sure, but let's roll this forward 50 years to hammer things home. Every ten years, the Westerosi Treasury announces that one lucky city will be getting a new transport line. Every ten years, it runs the numbers and finds it'll get the best result from investing in King's Landing yet again. Here's year 80:

King's Landing is now a booming metropolis with seven metro lines and an economy worth 5,808 million gold pieces. Its GDP grows by 4.5 per cent every year.

The struggling cities of Winterfell and Lannisport, though, are still sluggishly trundling along at growth of just 1 per cent, and their economies are worth barely a third of that of the capital. King's Landing's new mayor, Boris Baratheon, is starting to ask irritable questions about whether it's fair that his hard-working citizens should be expected to support lazy provincials through their taxes.

In year 80, Winterfell asks the Treasury for money for public transport once again, but the numbers just don't stack up. If they build line one of the Winterfell Metro, it'll add 352m gold pieces to the city's GDP over the next ten years. But if they build the much needed King's Landing Crossrail, it'll add 5.4bn gold pieces to the capital's GDP. The latter will cost a bit more – quite a lot more, actually – but even so, with benefits like that, it's a no brainer, really, isn't it?

One last graph to sum the situation up. Here's the GDP of King's Landing, with its ever growing public transport network, plotted against a provincial system without one.


Now this is, very obviously, a massive over simplification (it's a model, that's what they're for). For one thing, we’ve conflated population growth and productivity. For another, not all transport investments will have the same effect on GDP growth: perhaps the boost a city gets from moving to zero to one metro lines would be bigger than the boost it gets when it goes from seven to eight. And it’s far from clear that you can keep adding half a point to growth rates just by building new metro lines.

But the point, nonetheless, is clear. If transport investment is assumed to add to a city's potential growth rate; and if the people deciding where to make transport investments are focused on getting the maximum impact from that investment; then it's always going to seem more sensible to invest in the place that's bigger and faster growing. It's simply a property of the maths: it's better to increase the growth rate of the big thing than the small thing.

This is, to my mind, the single strongest argument for some kind of devolution. The national Treasury may never feel it’s a good investment to build a metro line in a struggling city; that city's residents and government almost certainly would.

Otherwise you'll get to the end of the century and find that Winterfell and Lannisport are still stuck in the economic doldrums, while the economy of King's Landing is so over heated that Bravosi oligarchs have started buying up patches of the place and nobody can afford to buy a house. And who wants that?


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.