So why has Liverpool’s economy grown faster than other similar sized British cities?

A pair of Superlambananas, which took over Liverpool during the 2008 European Capital of Culture celebrations. Image: Getty.

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. 

Last week in this space, I finally managed to find the overlap in the Venn diagram between urban economics and clickbait, when I published an article headlined, “Since 1998, a major northern city has grown almost as fast as London – and it’s not the one you think”.

The identity of the city in question, which as a dedicated CityMetric reader you’ll already know, was Liverpool. According to the Centre for Cities’ database, between 1998 and 2016 its economy grew by a factor of 2.1 – more than any major British city except London, Edinburgh or Cardiff.

Click to expand, if you must.

Why this might be is not a matter on which I spent too much time speculating. But the correspondence I received about that article, both demanding and suggesting explanations – and, in one memorable case, accusing me of colluding in corruption, by propagating official government figures (don’t ask) – suggests that plenty of other people were hungry for answers on this one.

So: here are some of the more popular theories.

It started from a low base

“The 90s were really bad here, man,” writes one local. My chart used 1998 as its year zero: if Liverpool fell behind its peers in the ‘90s, higher growth in the decades that followed could go largely unnoticed, simply because it never entirely caught up.

That’s no doubt part of the picture. But if you look at wages, it’s clear that Liverpool (in green) really did have a good start to the 21st century, compared to other regional cities:

Click to expand.

So: a partial explanation, at best.

It’s the culture, stupid

In 2003, Liverpool was named the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The city didn’t just spend five years planning its programme of events: it also took pains to ensure the event left a legacy, not just reputational, but in terms of cultural infrastructure, tourism facilities and actual physical venues, notably the Echo Arena.

This was obviously not a factor in, say, Manchester over the same period: so perhaps you’d expect Liverpool to grow more.

It’s the great big shopping centre

Liverpool City Council agreed to redevelop the Paradise Street Area in 1999. Nearly a decade later, as the city was showing its cultural goodies off to the world, the Liverpool ONE development opened: at 42 acres, the largest open air shopping centre in the UK.

Not everyone loves Liverpool ONE, but it did comprehensively remake Liverpool as a retail centre: so again, you’d expect this to have had an impact on the size of the local economy.

It’s all the students

There are four universities in Liverpool. It’s difficult to find comprehensive figures, but there is a consensus that the student body has grown massively in recent decades: Edge Hill University, for example, has increased in size eightfold, from 2000 students in 1993 to around 15,000 now.

All this has a knock on effect – in terms of cafes, accommodation, nightlife. Perhaps this has helped drive Liverpool’s growth.

It’s affordable

The land is cheap in Liverpool. So is living the good life. So is buying a house. “My four storey Victorian townhouse in a conservation area cost £135k,” writes one correspondent. “Soz.”

At any rate: starting a business or undertaking a risky creative venture is easier in Liverpool than in many British cities. Perhaps that’s paying dividends.

It’s because of boundary issues

Something I didn’t explain as fully in the last post as I should have is how we’re defining Liverpool. The Centre for Cities (CfC) data uses “primary urban areas”, or PUAs: collections of local authorities which roughly approximate the economic footprint of a city.

The Liverpool one is actually quite small: just the city council and the neighbouring borough of Knowsley, excluding the other four boroughs of the Liverpool City Region. So it’s possible that the city has benefited from the wider trend for economic activity to move from the suburbs to cities proper.

Demonstrating that is difficult, at least with the data we’ve got. But we can show that Liverpool has grown faster than at least one of its outer boroughs. Because of the width of the Mersey, the CfC data counts the Wirral separately as the city or Bikenhead. It’s clear that the economy there has grown a lot less rapidly than that of the big city across the river:

It’s also possible that drawing the boundaries in different places would produce different results. For example:

So: maybe our figures were not wrong, exactly, but incomplete.

It’s the EU

In 1994, the EU allocated £700m to Liverpool under its Objective One regional development programme. Another £928m followed in 2000; aother £700m shared across the north west in 2007. Between 2014 and 2020, another £450m was allocated to Liverpool. (These figures from the Liverpool Echo.) That money helped fund a huge range of infrastructure across the city, including the Echo Arena.


All of these factors and more have probably contributed to Liverpool’s quiet boom. But it’s this last that I keep coming back to. European money has almost certainly been a big factor in Liverpool’s transformation – and it is very far from obvious that Westminster will be as keen to invest in the city as Brussels was. Little wonder that the city voted Remain.

Thanks to assorted correspondents including Laura Brown, Andrew Lutter, Kelly Scotney, Bren Birkett and Caroline Crampton.

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

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Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.