HS2 isn't about the north of England at all – it's about commuters in Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes' "Concrete Cows". Image: Concrete Cowboy/Wikimedia Commons.

Do we need a new superfast railway so that Mancunians can get to London’s gold-paved streets more quickly? Or do we need it because the trains they take at the moment will be full in a couple of years?

Will HS2 free up space on our railways and get lorries off the motorways? Or is it all just a waste of money that will destroy the English countryside?

Those are good questions. None of them matter.

If you want to know why the UK will build HS2 then the only question that matters is, “Have you ever been to Milton Keynes?”

Endless roundabouts, concrete cows, and suburbs with names like “Walnut Tree” and “Coffee Hall”, the UK’s fastest growing city is a bizarre place. But nothing about it is more unusual than its politics.

Milton Keynes is a pretty big city. Both of its MPs are Conservatives. If you’ve been paying attention, that should shock you.

In Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Leeds — the cities at the ends of HS2 — elections are pretty much a formality. Sure, there are leaflets, and hustings, and campaigns like anywhere. But none of it matters because at the end of it all most people vote Labour anyway. In Milton Keynes they often don’t.

So what does this have to do with a railway? Well, the track from London to Birmingham, and Liverpool, and Manchester — the track that may or may not be too slow, too full, better with freight on, or about to vandalise England’s countryside — goes through Milton Keynes. And every day thousands of people from Milton Keynes cram themselves onto trains to do well-paid jobs in London.

An annual season ticket from Milton Keynes to London costs £4,880. That works out at just over £10 a journey for a trip of 45 miles each way, about 25 pence a mile.

Walk up to Manchester Piccadilly station early in the morning and ask for a ticket to London, and the £164.50 you’ll be charged works out at about £1 per mile. However you do the maths**, the people of Manchester are paying a lot more than the people of Milton Keynes to use the same stretch of railway.

This isn’t an accident or an oversight; this was how the system was designed when the railways were privatised. The government chickened out of letting train companies set the prices of all tickets and intervened at the last minute. Train companies could charge peak-time day-trippers what they liked; but commuters would have their fares kept low by the government.

The problem we face now is that the railway is nearly full. Passenger numbers are increasing, and a select group of travellers are exempt from the usual mechanism of rationing supply – price.

The market solution to this problem would be simple. Fares for commuters from Milton Keynes should increase, to stop the railway from getting too full. But the Conservatives have promised not to raise fares.

There is an alternative market solution. Network Rail could cancel some trains from Milton Keynes and run more from Manchester. That would increase the number of Mancunians, paying much more for their journeys, who could still travel. This would make Network Rail money, and save the taxpayer cash – but it would be very unpopular in Milton Keynes.

The third solution is to build a new railway, that takes some of the strain off the line between Milton Keynes and London. That way the commuters of Milton Keynes can keep enjoying cheaper travel than Mancunians, and both can still take the train.

There’s just one problem; the fares between Milton Keynes and London are far too low to justify building a new railway.

So here’s the really clever bit about HS2. We build the new railway we need to the midlands – but then keep building it north to Manchester even though we don’t need to. This lets us say that we’re building it to serve Mancunians: then we can then use their much higher fares to make the scheme look like better value for money.

Politically this trick is perfect. Commuters in Milton Keynes get investment from the government (indirectly, through the relief to the existing line), and politicians can say that they’re investing in the North. It wins votes in places they matter, and costs them in safe seats where they don’t.

So here’s my advice when you’re thinking about HS2. Don’t get distracted by Birmingham or Manchester. Don’t get distracted by the countryside, by the speed, by the lorries we could take off the M6, or by what else we could do with the money.

None of that matters.

If you want to understand why HS2 will be built, go to Milton Keynes Central station at half-past six in the evening and ask a commuter if they’d vote for a party that made their season ticket more expensive. Then ask them if they’d vote for a party who cancelled some of their trains so that more people could get between London and Manchester.

When they say no, remember that these are the people who decide British elections. Their opinions matter more than yours – and their answers leave politicians with only one possible solution. Build HS2.

**Some would argue that this is an unfair comparison. But almost no-one in Manchester commutes every day to London, so the majority of passengers are buying the anytime tickets. By contrast, lots of people in Milton Keynes commute to London, so the majority of passengers are buying season tickets. 

It doesn't matter that they're travelling on different types of ticket: these are the prices most likely to be paid by the passengers currently taking up space on the West Coast Main Line.

 
 
 
 

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.