Passengers on the slow train from Manchester to Liverpool sit staring out the windows at the drizzle-soaked urban sprawl—just a regular Monday commute across one of Britain’s poorest regions. But like so many things in the proud and beleaguered north, this storied route was once a symbol of human invention and the British Empire’s dominance. Nearly 200 years ago, the Liverpool-to-Manchester Railway was the world’s first twin-track intercity passenger railway—a line that connected the great manufacturing mills of Manchester and the county of Lancashire with the great Port of Liverpool—then the world’s biggest and busiest industrial port.
Today, the north of England is struggling. This, in itself, is hardly new. Industrial decline and urban deprivation have defined the modern north as much as the Beatles and Premier League football. For as long as most people here can remember, their cities have been trying and failing to keep up economically with the country’s robust southeast, which includes the powerhouse of London and the affluent home counties. But even now that the recession has lifted, this historical divide is getting worse, not better. Despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s election pledge to unite the country and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s austerity declaration that “we are all in this together,” the north has never seemed so alienated from the rest of Britain.
While London’s economy has bounded back and its real estate market has soared since the 2007 banking crash, the north and everywhere else (with the exception of the southeast, which includes London) are still lagging. The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at Manchester University recently reported that the U.K.’s southeast, home to just a quarter of the population, was responsible for 37 per cent of the nation’s growth from 1997 to 2006. Since then, that number has shot up to 48 per cent. Meanwhile, the rest of Britain (with the exception of Scotland, which has its own devolved system of government) has experienced a period of decline marked by high unemployment and severe public-spending cuts. This widening chasm has caused great alarm among economists, who warn that Britain risks an Italian-style economic imbalance (in which one half of the country pulls the other).
And it’s not just about money. The divide between London rich and regional poor (which speaks directly to the country’s increasingly squeezed middle class) has caused a great deal of commentary of late. The New Statesman recently published a special northern-themed issue, and two of last year’s most celebrated books—Autobiography by the Smiths’ frontman Morrissey, about his childhood growing up in Manchester, and Paul Morley’s whimsical memoir and regional history, The North (and Almost Everything in It)—proved the country is still fascinated by this beleaguered region.
The truth is, the north has long been disproportionately culturally productive—from bands like the Beatles and Joy Division to the novels and plays of Alan Bennett—and England has long looked there for a cultural sense of itself. This region of distinctive accents, hardscrabble pluck and a glorious industrial past is, in many ways, an embodiment of old-fashioned British values: hard work, modesty and humour in the face of adversity. And in a country not known for its cuddliness, the north is surprisingly friendly. Everyone from the taxi driver to the tea shop lady will call you “love” and actually seem to mean it.
But that has not helped prevent its decline. The root of the problem, according to the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, is Britain’s centralized government, which maintains an iron grip over regional spending. In Liverpool, 76 per cent of the city’s funding comes from the central government, half of which will be cut by 2017. The reason Liverpool has been so badly hit is in part also due to the declining value of property in the city. While property values in London have gone up approximately 10 per cent per year for some time now, values in Liverpool and Manchester have dropped significantly since 2007. Council tax (or property tax)—the only local tax revenue that cities retain—is based on land value. And with over 60 per cent of Liverpudlians in the lowest council tax bracket (compared to just 18 per cent of Londoners) that revenue has been sorely depleted.
Northern economies are also more dependent on the public sector for benefits. The north has higher levels of poor health, unemployment and pensioners than the rest of the country. In the Liverpool region today, roughly one in five people is on benefits.
“It’s the economics of the madhouse,” says Anderson. An expansive fellow, bald as a cue ball with dancing blue eyes, he is not afraid to speak frankly. “There’s no question in my mind that this has been an ideological attack on local government. We’re the worst off and we’re also the worst hit. So when they say down in Westminster, ‘We’re all in this together,’ that’s absolute rubbish.” What he stops just short of saying is that the north has been hung out to dry for political reasons. The opposition Labour Party dominates in this part of the world and has since the Thatcher era.
Richard Leese, leader of the Manchester city council, expresses similar outrage over the way the coalition government has targeted his city. Though he’s quick to point out that Manchester is the relative success story of the region—both its economy and population are growing—he says gains have been made despite the central government rather than because of it. Manchester’s council funding has been cut by 40 per cent over the past five years, despite the region’s higher levels of deprivation. Leese also says he has been “personally attacked” by Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for daring to complain about unfair treatment. “They’ve simply funnelled money away from the country’s poorest people and into their political heartland. There is no ‘rebalancing’ going on whatsoever, you can be sure of that.”
There are some signs of regeneration in the urban northwest—from Manchester’s lively restaurant and bar scene to Liverpool’s revitalized waterfront, which includes a branch of the Tate. But leave the gleaming, bustling downtown cores and it’s impossible to ignore the scenes of startling poverty.
Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, home of Liverpool Football Club, is a symbol of international wealth in one of the city’s most rundown neighbourhoods. For blocks around the stadium there is little but boarded-up Victorian terraced houses. Some houses have been razed, but plans to rebuild the area are in limbo. As Matt Biagetti, an urban planner from the organization Liverpool Vision, says, “These are areas where no one is choosing to be. And no one knows what to do with them.”
No one except perhaps the people at Homebaked, a small, community-run café that sits across from Anfield. Serving homemade scones and tea, the waitress, a local volunteer, recounts how she and her friends took over the vacant space and raised $33,000 on Kickstarter for an oven. They’ve been open for eight weeks, servicing the otherwise desolate neighbourhood and providing cooking skills in exchange for volunteer labour. It’s this sort of community enterprise that the Tory-led coalition was hoping might spring up to fill the gap left by public-sector cuts. But asked what their long-term plans are, the waitress laughs and shakes her head. “Eventually the landlords will sell up to the football club and they’ll tear us down. But what do you expect, really?” And then she refills the hot water in my teapot and gives me an extra scone for the road.