Wirral and Liverpool – We two are one?

My Wirral guide for people from Liverpool a week ago caused lots of interest here and on Twitter, some amused, some thoughtful.WirralLiverpool

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.”

Stephen Roberts, photographing Wirral from Liverpool. At The Florrie in the Dingle.
Stephen Roberts, photographing Wirral from Liverpool. At The Florrie in the Dingle.

Stephen’s thoughts:

“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.

'Wirral starts here!' Urban planning at its best.
‘Wirral starts here!’ Urban planning at its best.

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.

The way it was. The traditional counties of Wales and England.
The way it was. The traditional counties of Wales and England.

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.

11 Replies to “Wirral and Liverpool – We two are one?”

  1. I grew up in Widnes, but as soon as I was old enough, I headed to Liverpool for everything I needed. Gigs, shopping, and football! Liverpool is Liverpool, separate from Lancashire and Cheshire, in style, attitude, and outlook. Lancashire, for me, is the Houghton Weavers, pies, mill towns, Lonsdale trackies, and clogs. Nothing to do with Liverpool at all!

  2. Well Ronnie my old chum: this is very interesting indeed and something I have thought about a great deal over the last 35 years or more. I confess that what you say makes a good deal of sense. I bow to your superior and first-hand knowledge about the successes of Merseyside County Council. I did not realise that it had worked so well. At the time, to me, it felt like an impersonal and faceless monstrosity, but I suppose Cheshire County Council had not been any better.

    I think we share a common dislike of Conservative governments. I really did not like Heath’s government of 1970 to 1974 for its complete failure to improve industrial relations, to deal with the problem of Northern Ireland or to address the economic and social problems of the day. For this reason, Its disruption of a thousand years’ worth of heritage for no obvious gain made me doubly angry.

    After that, Thatcher and Heseltine’s abolition of the Metropolitan counties simply in order to nullify radical local governments made the whole thing seem even more ridiculous. It is a very sad example of what you often complain about – top-down, ill-informed, elitist government, which does not reflect the wishes and feelings of the people.

    This brings me to my next point – one’s sense of identity and belonging is all about feelings. It is not necessarily rational or logical. In fact, apparent lack of sense and rationality can make something more enchanting. We need a bit of serendipity and colour in life. That is partly why I loved the old county boundaries and towns so much. I adored the quirky shapes such as Cheshire’s “Panhandle” which stuck eastwards into the Pennines, sharing borders with Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire and “Lancashire North of the Sands” which encompassed Barrow-in-Furness and parts of the Lake District. What about the detached segment of Flintshire, near Wrexham? Bizarre but wonderful! The great thing about all these anomalies, however, is that they all, at one time, had a logical reason: they evolved over time due to geographical features and social and political developments; they are therefore evidence in the landscape of our rich and diverse heritage; and I think that rich and diverse heritage is something far more valuable than Tory gerrymandering.

    Stan’s above comment about Liverpool is so very very pertinent and insightful – Yes indeed Liverpudlians have justifiably long felt themselves to be exceptional (See John Belchem’s books, especially “Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism”) – not really Lancastrians and sometimes not even English or British. It is a feeling to be celebrated, but it calls into question Liverpool’s ability to be joined to Wirral as “one city” and certainly, in my experience, with the exception of you Ronnie, I have found most Scousers to be determined to remain distinct from us “Woolly-Backs” or “Wirral Squirrels” from over the water. I used to teach groups of young Merseysiders. There was always a good deal of squabbling between the true Scousers and the Woolly-Backs. I once overheard a rather unenlightened dialogue which went something like this:

    TRUE SCOUSER: You Birkenhead lads are a bunch of Muppets.

    INCENSED BIRKONIAN: So are you!

    It was hardly a Johnsonian counter-stroke, but if you think about it, it contains quite a lot of wisdom and, in a way, supports Ronnie’s argument. I could go on, but I had better stop!

    1. Strangely enough Stephen, I’ve just been reading John Belchem’s ‘Liverpool, City of Radicals.’ And contributors to that book also make the observation that Liverpool never really saw itself as a part of Lancashire (or indeed England), evolving more like a semi-independent city-state as the port for all of Lancashire and Cheshire’s trade. And so it grew as a city, with the places around it developing and prospering because it was there.

      And that’s still the case. Except everywhere isn’t prospering now. So perhaps the next bit of what you describe as evolution ‘over time due to geographical features and social and political developments’ involves the whole place working together, living and trading and attracting visitors under the collective name of ‘Liverpool’? Like the city-state it is and has been for all these years.

      If, as I more than suspect, that would be good for our well-being as well as good for business, I believe people’s sentimental objections and mild bigotries would melt away.

      1. I am a bit worried about the idea of a new Liverpool super-authority. It sounds like Liverpool imperialism. What will the new place be called – Wirrapool or Liverral perhaps? I admit the importance of Liverpool for the whole region, but the idea of it subsuming all the little local places isn’t very nice. But, knowing what you are like, I don’t really think thius is what you are advocating.

  3. I found this discussion really interesting, because my whole approach to Liverpool history has been one of looking at the different (personal) approaches to the landscape, including boundaries and feelings of belonging. Just as you feel different walking through your ‘patch’ or going into the ‘wrong’ pub, we all feel that different people and places belong in different sets, and as your articles and commenters have proved, we all have different views!

    I feel like Wirral is outside Liverpool, though never felt it was a piece of Cheshire. The Mersey has created two very different places on either side, which is why I’ll be sad to see it transformed by any Wirral Waters scheme, in some ways even more than Liverpool.

    And Liverpool has always (in my mind) been separate from Lancashire. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the area, but I seem to feel like Liverpool and the Wirral are their own two little counties – perhaps some of the Liverpudlian independence has rubbed off on me…

    1. Two separate places, certainly Martin. And I don’t think coming together as part of a greater whole would change that. But not so separate that we can’t work, plan and trade together around this river that combines more that it separates?

      1. Very good comment by Martin and reply by Ronnie. I feel quite moved by everybody’s love and enthusiasm for their home areas. I am an exiled Merseysider (I mean a former inhabitant of the Mersey Basin, rather than a ratepayer to Merseyside County Council you understand) but I go back home as often as I can and sometimes even take my students down with me. I try to convey to them the intense and passionate sense of place which Merseysiders feel for their region. We are proud of our roots. The above dialogue proves that. I often think that that could be the most wonderful sentiment to have – if we love our home area, we will care for it and if everyone in the world does that, the whole world will be cared for.

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