These modern ghost towns show the danger of an undiversified economy

The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2015, a decade after Hurricane Katrina. Image: Getty.

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” asked The Specials in their classic 1981 hit. Released as riots swept the country, the song was describing the hollowing out of Britain’s cities, as – faced with urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence – many of their residents just left.

In the bigger picture, the trend has long been in the other direction, and the tide of people moving from rural areas to the city seems pretty universal. Ten years ago, for the first time, half the world’s population was thought to live in a city. This is expected to hit two-thirds by 2050; it’s already at around 54 per cent.

Zoom in, though, and look more locally at individual cities especially in the post industrial world, the march of urbanisation seems a lot more fragile.

New Orleans

Unfortunately for the pride and wallets of most New Orleanians, their city is a textbook example of urban decline. When the oil industry, which had supported the city for so long, collapsed in the late 1970s, unemployment swelled and people began to leave.

Post-oil New Orleans failed to diversify its industries: the city fell back to tourism to provide economic support, but that didn’t quite cut it. Since then, poorer areas of the city have become synonymous with ongoing urban decay and depopulation, and between 1970 and 2000 the city’s residents moved out in their thousands, shrinking the population by 18 per cent.

The city’s economic problems were further compounded in 2005, with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Flooding 80 per cent of the city, it displaced huge numbers of people, many of whom never returned.

Liverpool

The UK has seen its own share of urban decline. The great northern city of Liverpool has experienced some of the worst, with the population of the city proper shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The docks in 1920. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

As in New Orleans, this decline was largely due to the disappearance of what brought people to the city in the first place:  jobs. Liverpool had boomed as the north’s great port, and well into the 20th century the city’s economy was centred around its docks.

But as containers replaced the labour intensive break bulk cargo, unemployment in many dock towns skyrocketed. To make matters worse, many of the industries that the docks had served moved abroad.

Why has the city struggled to move on? One explanation is outdated skills: an in depth knowledge of cargo ships isn’t really going to help you in a bank. At any rate, the lack of jobs has meant that people left – and large swathes of Liverpool were left vacant.

Kitakyushu

Kitakyushu, in western Japan, was once a thriving steel town. It was home of the Imperial Steel Works, whose grandiose name fitted its importance to the industrialising nation.

And the city’s industrial might didn’t go unnoticed abroad. During WWII, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was actually intended for Kitakyushu; it was only cloud cover over the latter that protected it.

At its peak the steel industry in Kitakyushu employed 50,000 people – but today, it provides jobs for as little as 4,200. As steel production moved to developing countries where overheads were cheaper, citizens were left without a jobs. Despite steady automotive and robotic industries, they couldn’t provide employment for the large number of workers who’d worked at the steel mill.

So, the now familiar story happened there, too: widespread unemployment, leading to depopulation and urban decline. Last month, Kitakyushu’s amusement park, Space World, closed – and nothing screams decay quite like abandoned space themed rides. 


These examples are in no way exhaustive; the list of depopulating ghost towns is long, and economics is often the cause. The common thread here is that all three were one-industry towns. New Orleans had oil, Liverpool the docks, and Kitakyushu steel. But the free-market stripped these cities of their main source of employment, leaving them hollowed out.

Blaming the markets, though, is liking blaming the wind if your house gets blown down: it may be to blame, but that doesn’t mean you can do literally nothing. These cities didn’t diversify when they had the chance – and when their industry left, they declined.

So to all you urban planners out there, if you value the longevity of your city, put on ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and get diversifying.

 
 
 
 

“The enabling authority”: What explains Warrington’s economic boom?

Warrington’s Georgian Town Hall, behind its Victorian gates. Image: Racklever/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

When you’ve spent a couple of years trawling a database, you start to notice patterns. Here’s a map of GVA per worker, a measure of productivity, across the main British urban areas. Darker colours mean higher numbers:

Image: Centre for Cities.

That darker, green blob about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, is Warrington. It’s by far the most productive city in the north west of England.

Another map. This one’s welfare spend per capita: you’d probably want your blob to be as light as possible, to represent that everyone is doing alright without government support. And once again: Warrington sticks out like a sore thumb.

Image: Centre for Cities.

Last one. This one’s wages. It’s less obvious here, because Warrington’s weekly wages are roughly on a par with those of Liverpool and Manchester (in fact, they’re slightly lower). But you’d expect wages to be highest in a region’s big cities, and lower in the smaller, nearby towns. And yet Warrington, unlike the other cities of the north west, is competing with the big boys.

Image: Centre for Cities.

The obvious question is: how?

History and geography

Context first. Warrington started out as a market town, on the Lancashire bank of the Mersey, by this point little more than a stream, although it swiftly spread across the river into Cheshire, the county it’s now part of. Half a century ago, it had a lot in common with the other smaller, industrial settlements of the north west: it was a centre for brewing, distilling and, most notably, wire manufacture. (The number of things in the town still nicknamed “The Wire” – a football team, a rugby team, a radio station – is faintly unsettling to any fan of the work of either David Simon or Doctor Who.)

Warrington in context. Image: Google Maps.

In 1968, though, Warrington was designated as one of the government’s final wave of new towns. Land left vacant by the closure of the munitions factory at ROF Risley was purchased by the Warrington Development Corporation and redeveloped as the new residential estate of Birchwood. Other sites – notably that of an airbase, RAF Burtonwood – have since also been repurposed as housing. Over the last half century, the population of the town has roughly tripled, to over 210,000: in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the decades when many northern industrial cities were in decline, Warrington’s population boomed.

The Village Hotel: a very ’80s vision of the future. Image: Jonn Elledge.

You can see this dual history – part ancient market town, part post-war boomtown – in the fabric of the place. The main thing I knew about Warrington before I visited it that it was a new town, so I was expecting a sort of northern Milton Keynes.

That wasn’t entirely wrong: the majority of the housing is relatively recent. And one of my meetings took me to a combined hotel bar/café/health club which offers something called “Inspiration Suites”, and whose enormous brick-surfaced car-park surrounds a fountain spouting extravagantly dyed water, like a vision of the future, c1986.

But there’s another Warrington: the covered market square, where there’s a pub dating from 1561; the grand Georgian and Victorian buildings on Sankey Street and Palmyra Square. The town hall is the Grade I-listed Bank Hall, which dates from 1750; its grand gates, at the foot of its long lawn, were created as a gift for Queen Victoria. She declined them, but nonetheless: Warrington was and is a real place in its own right, not merely an overflow for people who wanted to escape the big cities on either side.

The market square. Image: Jonn Elledge.

Economics

So why is Warrington doing so well, when so many similar sized northern cities are doing so badly? Why is it attracting the knowledge intensive service businesses that a modern western city needs to boom?

Image: Centre for Cities.

Geography is clearly a factor. The town lies within relatively easy reach of both Liverpool and Manchester, via train and motorway and, should you fancy it, canal. It lies on the main north-south routes (the West Coast Main Line; the M6), too. Whethe you’re a commuter or a business, it’s a good place to be based.


That doesn’t explain why it should have done so much better than Wigan, 10 miles to the north, which shares many of these advantages, however. So here’s another theory: Warrington’s success is the legacy of its history. Its new town status meant it had a lot of land, ready and hungry for development. It also gave the town what Steve Parks, managing director of Warrington & Co., terms an “enabling authority”: a council that saw economic development as a key part of its role.

The development corporation responsible for the new town closed its doors in 1989. But today Warrington & Co. essentially continues its mission, by providing business support, and leading local development and regeneration schemes. It creates the infrastructure necessary to unlock new developments; helps developers get planning permission; and manages the council’s property portfolio, providing it with a handy revenue stream.

Technically, Warrington & Co.’s staff are council officers; but their email addresses suggest otherwise, and they were largely recruited from the private sector. “When an investor thinks they’re talking to Warrington Borough Council, they think they’re all about car parking and grass cutting and so on,” Parks says. The impression of a private company was created intentionally, “to drive a different dynamic”.

“To some extent,” he goes on, “it’s a northern post-industrial town. We’ve had out of town development and the new town, but there’s a donut effect: the donut has done well, at the expense of the demise of the town centre.”

So the priority at present is correcting for that. Its big scheme of the moment is Time Square, a new chunk of town centre including a cinema, offices, eight new restaurants and two new bars. The council, through Warrington & Co., is taking on the development risk itself. Other schemes are in the pipeline, too. “We’ve broken the town centre into seven quarters,” Parks notes. “But we’re doing them all at the same time so we don’t just chase the blight around the own.”

A hoarding for the new development. Image: Jonn Elledge.

There’s much still to do. The first thing many visitors see when they arrive at Warrington Bank Quay station is the town’s biggest remaining patch of industrial decay, a spit of land between the river and the railway, which the counc il fears shapes perception of the place: a new road is needed to unlock its re-development. There are plans to bring residents back to the town centre, too: the council has planning permission for another 500 extra homes; James Peacock Developments has already created a chichi apartment block next to Central station. Parks talks, perhaps optimistically, of attracting tech business to a local digital hub, too.


All sorts of factors have contributed to Warrington’s success, but one of them must surely be this: a council willing and able to do the things necessary to push the town forward, and with the land, and cash, to do it. It’s the same attitude that led it to create a second arms-length company, Warrington’s Own Buses, which does what it says on the tin. It’s like a Victorian municipal corporations, still running in 2018.

Most of the factor that enabled Warrington’s boom aren’t replicable. But with some thought and some investment, this one, perhaps, could be.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites