Geoffrey Howe and The Leaving of Liverpool
The Guardian’s big splash today is headlined:
Thatcher government toyed with evacuating Liverpool after 1981 riots.
Dave Osler’s in there with the follow up at LibCon:
[T]op Tories Geoffrey Howe and Sir Keith Joseph advised Margaret Thatcher to abandon that beastly city altogether.
And Kerry McCarthy’s hot on his heels at Labourlist:
Today’s disclosure of Cabinet papers under the 30 year rule reveal that Tory ministers tried to persuade Msrgaret Thatcher to write off Liverpool after the 1981 riots and abandon it a process of ‘managed decline’.
Now, I’m all for a bit of Tory-bashing when the opportunity arises, but I think we need to stand back a little and put what Howe wrote in the context of the time. Howe wrote to Thatcher:
Currently regional policy, on which large sums of public money are spent, is biased towards manufacturing industry on a geographical basis founded on past economic patterns. Michael’s [Heseltine's] report raises issues…. about the relevance of the present structure of regional incentives to our current circumstances – whether, for example, greater importance should now be accorded to service industries. These questions go wider than Merseyside. Political difficulties in changing the system are formidable. But we need to get to grips with the problem.
Should our aim be to stabilise the inner cities….or is this to pump water uphill? Should we rather go for “managed decline”? This is not a term for use, even privately. It is much too negative, when it must imply a sustained effort to absorb Liverpool manpower elsewhere – for example in nearby towns, of which some are developing quite nicely – as well as some real attention to the community and townscape that is left behind.
There are two key issues here.
First, the “nearby towns” Howe refers to are most likely Runcorn and Skelmersdale, designated as New Towns in the early 1960s but only nearing completion in the late 1970s (in fact Skelmersdale has never been properly completed), as well as other small urban centres on the Wirral, to the North and East of Liverpool (Crosby, Maghull, Kirkby and Huyton), as well as Widnes higher up the Mersey.
1981 was therefore only really the tail end of this phase, so it is not so surprising therefore. in the context of a dominant urban policy which then still favoured Fordist new town/suburban planning, that Howe should talk in terms of managing inner city decline.
Second, and much more damning, is the stark reminder that Howe and his colleagues really never had any proper plan for this, or any other, industrial region.
Howe’s blind faith that these new towns can suddenly and magically find jobs for those already forced out of inner-cityLiverpool (and those he wished to see leave) turned out to be utterly fanciful. By 1983 the unemployment rate in Skelmersdale was around 25% , and the town has only ever had 40,000 of the 80, 000 residents originally planned. The story of continued deprivation and worklessness on some of the outer estates of Merseyside and Runcorn is testament to the Tories’ incompetence.
Today, Tory apologists for Thatcher are claiming that she stood up for Liverpool, by turning down the plans to manage the city’s decline. They may be right, technically, but only in the sense that the decline was much wider than Liverpool, and wasn’t managed at all.