My Wirral guide for people from Liverpool a week ago caused lots of interest here and on Twitter, some amused, some thoughtful.
The longest of the thoughtful responses came through yesterday evening from someone I know and have been out walking with.
Stephen Roberts is a history teacher and a published author, one of his books being A History of Wirral. In general he liked what I’d written:
“Very good idea to advertise Wirral to Liverpudlians. I don’t think you would need to do the opposite procedure: most Wirral people are very familiar with Liverpool, even if only the central business district, where many of them work, shop and get their entertainment. I believe 40% of Wirral’s population commutes to Liverpool and back every day.
But some of what I’d written in response to some follow up comments had particularly perturbed him.
My Words: “We genuinely think these two places are together enough to be a city, a ‘city region’ or well, you know what we mean. When our cities were reorganised in the early 1970s, two of them kept their names – Greater London & Greater Manchester. Others were diminished by the names of their rivers. Teesside, Tyneside, Merseyside, Avon. All cities, really. A city region needs urban & space to breathe.”
To which one reader, Stan Cotter had responded:
“I still think of my address as ‘Dingle Liverpool 8, Lancashire. I was born in Lancashire, I live in Lancashire, my friend was born in Lancashire and now its called Cheshire, that’s Widnes!
They can change what they like but they will never change us or our heritage.”
“I am interested in your comments about Wirral and Liverpool being one city and in Stan’s rejoinder. I am a passionate believer in the old counties. I hated the Local Government Reform Act of 1974 which changed boundaries and created new counties, most of which have subsequently been adjusted at least twice more and several of which have been abolished. I am a Wirral man born and bred and am therefore from Cheshire, not Merseyside. I could cry when I see the sign near Heswall which says “Welcome to Wirral”, when, by that point, you have actually been travelling along its coastline for about ten miles. I feel similarly upset when I travel through Warrington, which lies north of the River Mersey (the ancient boundary between Cheshire and Lancashire) and the signs claim that it’s in Cheshire. There is no snobbery in this – I love Liverpool as much as I love Wirral (and I am even learning to love Warrington), but for me Liverpool is in Lancashire and Wirral is in Cheshire. That’s the way it was for the best part of a thousand years. It was arrogant and hurtful of Heath’s government to destroy that piece of British heritage.
I think I am largely an unsentimental and practical sort of person, but I also feel that there is a place for the traditions and heritage which give people a sense of identity. The ancient counties are an example of that.”
Deeply thoughtful and deeply felt. So, rather than simply respond in the comments of what’s now a week old post and was principally about the beauty of the Wirral Peninsula, I thought it would be worth pulling this issue into a post of its own for further debate.
So, my response to Stephen.
I am not a passionate believer in the old counties and did not hate the Local Government Reform Act of 1974. I feel it recognised the changes that had happened with the growth of our cities over the previous 200 years, making it ludicrous that some degree of their administration be handled from some distant county town. And equally ludicrous that distant county towns and rural areas be unduly influenced by large cities with little conception of the issues that mattered to them.
What the 1974 Act got wrong was the manner of its implementation. Crossing a major river like the Mersey and decreeing that places on its north bank would now be part of Cheshire seems ludicrous. As does cutting a clearly defined place, the Wirral Peninsula, in two.
It all seems ad hoc. And indeed I’ve heard from someone who once talked to him about it, that the dividing up of what would become Merseyside was done by Michael Heseltine flying round in a helicopter, pointing down at where there were gaps in areas of urban development and deciding that’s where the lines would be drawn. Anecdotal as this may be, it would certainly explain the curious fact of what’s now called ‘Wirral’ stopping south-east of Heswall.
So the lines were drawn wrong, and as I’ve said above, in my opinion most of the naming was got wrong too. But the new counties, on the whole, made sense. And around here, I felt that the Merseyside County Council did a good job. Until a later Conservative administration abolished it.
Now, years later, there have been talks taking place about once again having a combined authority for all of Merseyside and Halton, with key powers being devolved to it to ‘aid the local economy.’ Greater Manchester already has one. Greater Liverpool could be next.
Greater Liverpool? Yes, let’s correct the core error from 1974 and reflect the facts that, as well as the local economy, the local society in this part of the world has one city at its centre, and that city is called Liverpool. This doesn’t make Wirral any less Wirral, or St Helens any less St Helens. Any more than the boroughs of Greater London or Greater Manchester have been diminished by associations with their own city regions.
And while we’re correcting core errors from 1974, let’s put all of the Wirral Peninsula back together. But as part of Greater Liverpool, not Cheshire. If 40% of its population are coming to Liverpool every day that makes simple and obvious sense.
Now I do believe everyone needs to have a clear sense of their place. We have, after all, been running this business called ‘a sense of place’ for 18 years now. But, for me, this ‘place’ has always been more specific than a county, especially the old ones. At no point in my life have I ever felt as if I was from Lancashire. I am from Liverpool and of Liverpool. And these days my wider place, because I spend so much time there, includes much of Wirral.
So, Wirral and Liverpool – We two are one? Yes and no. Integral and interdependent parts of a city region called Greater Liverpool. But also, and forever, very much their own glorious selves.
Not everyone will agree with me about all this, possibly not Stephen or Stan. But I believe these cities we’ve grown since the industrial revolution have redrawn the old maps of our countries. And it’s time we recognised that. But this time let’s sort out our city regions in ways that make sense to the people who live in them. And keep Michael Heseltine away from that helicopter!
Also of interest here is David Lloyd’s article in SevenStreets earlier this year on why Birkenhead would benefit from a much closer association with Liverpool.