Looking out over the River Mersey and its grand waterfront from the meeting room of the new Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, with the museums and galleries of the Albert Dock and the retail arcades of the Liverpool One development visible, it’s easy to forget this part of the North West was ever the subject of discussions about “managed decline”. The phrase, used in private cabinet meetings by Margaret Thatcher’s first chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe – but revealed under the 30-year rule in 2011 – confirmed to many Liverpudlians what they already knew to be the case: even in the face of deprivation and socio-economic turmoil, they couldn’t expect any favours from a Conservative government in Westminster. For the City Region’s first Metro Mayor and former Walton MP, Steve Rotheram, it was a time when “a Tory government left us to rot.”
The revelation of Thatcherite cabinets discussing the “evacuation” of the city and the absorption of “Liverpool manpower elsewhere”, has come to epitomise everything that was wrong with central government’s attitude to Liverpool as it struggled with unemployment and deindustrialisation, became synonymous with riots, crime and urban decay, and where, as one of Rotheram’s aides puts it, “you just took dereliction for granted.”
Rotheram agrees: “In the ‘80s I’d be going round and everything was black and white. Have a look now and we’re in full technicolour – the beauty has been teased out again, of a city that was in absolute dereliction.” More than just the landscape has changed. Thirty years ago, when the city was associated with union militancy, firebrand councillors and illegal budgets, Conservative governments would have baulked at the idea of giving away control over huge swathes of policy and service provision. Now, the office of Metro Mayor has a remit over education and skills, housing and planning, transport, health and social care.
But while the Conservative-led devolution agenda has created a new City Region comprising six local authorities – Liverpool, the Wirral, St Helens, Halton, Sefton and Knowsley – governed by a range of new powers, Steve Rotheram is unconvinced that Whitehall’s attitudes to the North, and to his city, have changed.
For him, the government’s commitment to the North has been less than consistent. “It depends on who you speak to and when you speak to them,” he says, noting that Theresa May “hardly even uttered the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’” in the months following her election to the leadership. “Just because you say something doesn’t mean to say it’s going to happen, so whether her commitment results in something that’s more tangible, that’s the most important thing – that’ll be the yardstick by which we measure the government’s commitment… but they haven’t shown yet that they are truly committed to moving this whole agenda forward.”
Now, distracted by Brexit negotiations and clinging to a wafer-thin majority in the Commons, the Prime Minister has been accused of allowing the Northern Powerhouse to take a back seat. In the week that transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the cancellation of electrification plans for railways across the North, including the TransPennine route between Manchester and Leeds, it’s difficult to disagree. “You think you’ve put a case forward where any reasonable human being would agree with you that something needs to happen – and government machinery stops it.”
With London-based projects receiving more than half of the UK’s investment in transport, Rotheram and other northern leaders are pushing hard for the creation of a “Crossrail of the North”, a west-east rail link connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. The proposed project, says Rotheram, is about creating an economic counterweight to London. “It has to be that, doesn’t it? The government talks about rebalancing the economy. Why do they do that? It’s not just because they’d like to push stuff out to us – it’s because London and the South East cannot sustain current growth. They are overheating. Having spent a lot of my recent time down in London and seeing what happens there – that’s not good for any democracy or any country. Looking at other European countries and meeting a lot of mayors from different European and global cities, they have devolution, they’ve had it forever, so they’ve got a much less centralised political system. Look at Germany, for example, and you’ll see it’s not just about the capital but it’s all the surrounding areas with an equal stake in trying to develop their own economies.”
A “committed pro-European”, Rotheram explains how a west-east rail link across the “northern corridor” could be key to not just the City Region but the whole of the UK’s post-Brexit future. “If we’re going to have bilateral trade deals with the US, it seems logical that somewhere like the Liverpool City Region, certainly with our post-Panamax facility” – Rotheram is referring to the new Port of Liverpool development, which can accommodate the world’s biggest ‘post-Panamax’ ships – “will be crucial to UK plc being able to get goods in and out of a port somewhere, so that brings massive opportunity.
Because we don’t all of a sudden, whenever Brexit happens, stop talking or dealing or trading with Europe. Hull is one of the port cities that faces towards Europe. If we can better link the corridor between Liverpool and Hull, picking up Manchester Airport and Manchester city centre and Leeds and Sheffield and even Newcastle, and shrinking the journey times and increasing capacity for those journeys, and the ability therefore for freight to use rail instead of road, that will be a huge benefit to the whole of the country, not just to us, not just to little Liverpool or Liverpool City Region, or the North West or even the North, but to the whole economy of the United Kingdom.”
The post-Brexit settlement is a worry for many in the City Region. Last year Liverpool, the Wirral and Sefton voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. Halton, Knowsley and St Helens voted to leave. Leave campaigners argued that Liverpool’s decline as a port had been precipitated by membership of the European Common Market, that the city had found itself on the wrong side of the country to benefit from burgeoning European trade, and lost out to better-placed eastern ports. But the EU’s designation of Merseyside as an Objective 1 area, and the award of European Capital of Culture in 2008, has transformed the region beyond recognition. European money “acted as the catalyst for £1bn of private sector investment. We did very, very well from a European Union that looked to boost our economic fortunes rather than a Tory government that was looking towards the ‘managed decline’ of the city.”
In Liverpool itself, Rotheram’s short tenure as Metro Mayor has not been without controversy. Liverpool council still retains its own executive mayor, Joe Anderson, and, according to local papers, the relationship between the two Labour leaders has been put under strain. A public spat between the region’s two most powerful politicians looks like more of the same dysfunction and intra-party rivalry from a city that has struggled to shake off its image as being governed by “boss politicians” and local powerbrokers. Anderson ran to stand as Labour’s candidate for mayor of the City Region before losing out to Rotheram. Not long after, he tried for selection in Rotheram’s old constituency of Walton, the safest seat in the country, but lost out to Dan Carden, a former Unite official on the left of the party. With a Mayor of Liverpool and a Mayor of Liverpool City Region, there’s bound to be crossover in their respective purviews, but Rotheram dismisses rumours of a fallout as “tittle-tattle” that’s “nice for local papers”.
What is undeniable is that this is a region facing dramatic economic and political change. Liverpool City Council – the largest local authority in the City Region – has lost 58 per cent of its government grant since 2010, and the city faces stark financial choices in the coming years. But Rotheram remains optimistic. Liverpool is ideally placed, he says, to be a leader in the fourth industrial revolution – the City Region is home to the UK’s most powerful supercomputer and the landing station for the transatlantic Hibernia communications cable. There’s talk of a Mersey Barrage using the river’s ebbs and flows for the city to become “the energy coast of Great Britain”. “Whether the Northern Powerhouse has lost momentum within government circles or not doesn’t really matter to us. What we’re dependent on is the consistency of message that we have from that northern corridor… All of those leaders, if we can try and work closely together, with or without government, I think that’d be much better for us and much better for the 15 million people that we represent.” The North is ripe for change, but for all the optimism of Rotheram and other northern leaders, it seems, for now, as if the ball is in the government’s court. Promises will ring hollow until they materialise into real, concrete projects. It remains to be seen how willing Westminster is to translate words