Sorry, northerners, but London’s tube strike is national news

Lol, good luck. Image: Getty.

Okay, there’s something that’s bugging me today. By even mentioning it I’m sticking my head on the block very slightly, and I’m sure the social media response to this post is going to be a treat. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s really, really winding me up:

Yes, there is a very good reason the tube strike is national news today. And no, it isn’t comparable to a problem with the buses in Huddersfield.

The idea that the strike is just a little local difficulty is a superficially truth-y one. London, after all, is just one city, where the vast majority of the country do not, in fact, live. What’s more, as the political, business and cultural capital of our ludicrously over-centralised state, unnecessary attention paid to London is likely to annoy people in the way a sudden focus on, say, Bradford probably won’t.

What’s more, by any reasonable definition, the British media is too London-centric. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of the fact that most of us live here, and CityMetric is very definitely not immune to this problem. (I’m always keen to correct this where possible, so if you happen to be in charge of another British city and would like me to come up and see you, do get in touch.)

Nonetheless, it’s entirely reasonable that the tube strike should be leading today’s national news, for at least two reasons.

One is that London is not just another city. It isn’t simply that all the journalists and politicians live here (though, that no doubt helps, when it comes to garnering coverage). It’s that a whole lot of other people do.

Exactly how many is quite hard to say, because the city has been growing pretty fast, but it can’t be far off 9m by now – roughly one in seven of the national population. If you consider the entire metropolitan area, which includes the commuter belt – as good a proxy for the number of people affected, directly or indirectly, by the tube strike as we’re likely to get – it’s closer to 14m.

I sort of suspect that any other political issue that affected 1 in 5 of the British population would be leading the news today, too.

Population estimates for 30 June 2015.

It’s easy to forget quite how big London is: because it’s just a city there’s a tendency to assume it’s on a level with other British cities. But it isn’t: it’s at least three times bigger than any of its rivals, and at least 40 times bigger than Huddersfield. It’s probably slightly bigger than Scotland and Wales combined, too – on which measure, Sadiq Khan is a significantly more important politician than Nicola Sturgeon.

The other reason why the tube strike is a national matter is related to this, but exacerbated by our old friend, the north-south divide: London represents a disproportionately big share of the national GDP. Estimates vary, but tend to be somewhere between 17 and 22 percent.

In other words, every fifth pound that the British economy is meant to be generating today may never materialise because people couldn’t get onto the Piccadilly line this morning.

None of this means the media isn’t too London-centric: it definitely is. Nor does it mean that it’s ludicrous the economy is so dependent on one giant city: that’s definitely true, too.

But the reality is that it’s genuinely difficult to think of anything else that could be happening in Britain today that would be directly affecting so many people or businesses. With apologies to the “not everyone lives in London” brigade, that’s why it’s leading the news today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.