In June 2014, Chancellor George Osborne visited Manchester and announced the need for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, his prestige investment project to redress the North-South economic imbalance. His speech evoked a well-worn stereotype of depressed and decaying northern cities that represented parochial outposts in comparison to economically-diverse and forward-thinking metropolis that had their roots in the early twentieth-century. For example, George Orwell’s accounts of working-class life in Wigan and Carl Jung’s vision of ‘dirty, sooty’ Liverpool where ‘everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque’, are typical of how we often think about these cities.
It is true that these northern cities experienced higher levels of poverty and unemployment during the twentieth-century and particularly after 1918: whereas London’s official unemployment rate stood at 12% in 1932, the peak of the interwar economic depression, it reached nearly 27% in the North-West of England and approached 30% in the North-East. As the old, staple industries such as coal, steel, cotton and shipbuilding collapsed dramatically in England’s industrial heartlands, the new light industries, such as the factories manufacturing consumer durables like radios and washing machines, emerged in the South-East and the Midlands. Local politicians were worried about political instability and the impact of economic decline.
Yet these problems overshadow the level of dynamism and ambition displayed by local politicians during the 1920s and 1930s in cities like Liverpool and Manchester in response to unemployment and economic decline. In particular, they invested in ambitious programmes of urban redevelopment that sought to improve the local economy and make local inhabitants feel more confident in the politicians’ ability to govern. For example, Manchester Corporation invested in the Wythenshawe Estate, one of the largest and ambitious council housing estates, new civic buildings such as Manchester Central Library and the Town Hall Extension, as well as expanding the tram network. Liverpool built the Mersey Tunnel to boost trade, worked hard to publicise the city abroad to boost the economy and pioneered extensive civic celebrations.
Local politicians, planners and businessmen in Liverpool and Manchester responded to the challenges and regional economic imbalance after 1918 with great ambition. The monograph demonstrates that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ existed far earlier and that the negative twentieth-century images of these cities needs to be readdressed.